The Colonial Era

Contemporary debates over the relationship of religious minority institutions, religious life in the public sphere, and immigration are products of France’s complicated colonial legacy. France was an imperial colonial power beginning in the 17th century and ending in the in the 1960s, with colonies in Africa, the Middle East, North America, and Southeast Asia. French colonialism was shaped by a variety of political, economic, and cultural factors, the most prominent among these being the mission civilisatrice, which promoted the advancement of French civilization, cultural norms, and political ideals in colonized nations by colonial officials and Catholic missionaries. French colonialism was not simply an expansion of French governance, but an active effort to assimilate colonized peoples into a French way of being.

Simultaneously, the mission was used to mask the basic political and economic motivations of colonialism.[1] Though it had vast colonial reach, the contemporary context in France is especially tied to colonialism in Muslim-majority regions. France’s colonial territories included Muslim lands in Africa, from French Somaliland to Mauritania. In North and West Africa, the mission meant active opposition to, dismantling, and the reconstitution of local religious institutions. In West Africa, colonial leaders forged ties with mainstream Islamic institutions while suppressing alternative and potentially destabilizing expressions of Islam, such as Sufi brotherhoods.[2] This latter aspect was particularly noticeable in North Africa where anti-colonial resistance was often expressed in Islamic terms, for example, as a military jihad, led by political and spiritual leaders like Abdul Qadir al-Jaza’iri in Algeria.

Throughout the Islamic French colonies, the French concept of laïcité was only promoted to the extent that it aided the preservation of French power. While laïcité in France manifested as the strict separation of government and religious institutions, the French colonial government in Algeria cultivated a form of official Islam that was loyal to the colonial state. For example, the 1905 French law officially separating church and state was not applied in Algeria. These decisions would profoundly shape the development of religious life and religious politics in Algeria and elsewhere into the 20th century.[3]

Anti-colonial movements rocked the globe in the mid-19th century. In some areas, independence proved bloody and traumatic. Algeria was designated as part of France in 1848 and had been populated with “pieds-noirs” [black feet], European colonists, some of whose parents and grandparents were born in Algeria and considered it their home. By 1945, there were nearly a million pieds-noirs in Algeria, and they controlled most of the wealth in the colony.[4] Institutionalized injustices against Algerians, the rise of anti- colonial ideologies, and a well-organized resistance—which both the military and pieds-noir population attempted to brutally suppress in order to retain control—resulted in the successful Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962).

The colonies, and, later, former colonial states, provided labor to feed France’s growing economy following World War II. These laborers faced various forms of discrimination influenced by colonial power imbalances. Workers were segregated in “foyers,” neighborhoods concentrated in the suburbs (banlieues) of cities like Paris and Lyon. Efforts by Muslim immigrants to create religious organizations were met with opposition, despite government support for religious and cultural life among Christian European immigrants.[5] The loss of colonial Algeria in 1962 was experienced as an insult to national and military pride by many in France, and triggered an intensification of racism and violence against immigrants on the part of right-wing groups.[6]

Ultimately, guest worker policies institutionalized and legitimized “unequal treatment, segregation and hierarchy” between immigrants and their neighbors.[7] By the 1970s, economic strain, a 1974 ban on immigration, and mounting tensions led to nation-wide protests among immigrants living in the foyers who demanded, among other things, Islamic ritual spaces and halal foods.[8] Public authorities and business owners accommodated these demands under the assumption that by allowing migrant workers to maintain their religious traditions, they would easily return to their country of origin.

In 2005, a conservative political party succeeded in passing the French Colonialism Law, which mandated that high school teachers present the “positive” aspects of colonialism, particularly related to North Africa. A wide spectrum of educators and leftist politicians opposed the law, along with leaders of former colonial states (including the president of Algeria, who refused to sign a Friendship Decree with France), who accused the French government of “historical revisionism.” Though the amendment was repealed in 2006, it has raised ongoing questions about France’s relationship to its colonial past and to the construction of memory.[9]


[1] Cathie Lloyd, “Race and Ethnicity,” in Modern France: Society in Transition, eds. Malcolm Cook and Grace Davie (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 34–52.

[2] Muhammad Sani Umar, Islam and Colonialism: Intellectual Responses of Muslims of Northern Nigeria (Leiden: Brill, 2006), p. 260.

[3] Naomi Davidson, Only Muslim (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012); Marcel Maussen, “The Governance of Islam in France: Church-State Traditions and Colonial Legacies,” in Religious Newcomers and the Nation State: Political Culture and Organized Religion in France and the Netherlands, eds. Erik Sengers and Thijl Sunier (Delft: Eburon Academic Publishers, 2010), pp. 131–154.

[4] David Longfellow, “Pieds-Noirs,” in Europe Since 1945: An Encyclopedia, ed. Bernard Cook (New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 398–399.

[5] Marcel Maussen, “The Governance of Islam in France: Church-State Traditions and Colonial Legacies,” in Religious Newcomers and the Nation State: Political Culture and Organized Religion in France and the Netherlands, eds. Erik Sengers and Thijl Sunier (Delft: Eburon Academic Publishers, 2010), pp. 131–154.

[6] Lloyd, “Race and Ethnicity,” pp. 34–52, p. 40.

[7] Maussen, “The Governance of Islam in France: Church-State Traditions and Colonial Legacies,” pp. 131–154.

[8] Jane Freedman, “’L’affaire des Foulards’: Problems of Defining a Feminist Antiracist Strategy in French Schools,” in Feminism and Antiracism: International Struggles for Justice, eds. Kathleen M. Blee and France Vinddance Twine (New York: NYU Press, 2001), pp. 295–312.

[9] Benjamin Stora, “Début d'une dangereuse guerre des mémoires,” L’Humanite, December 6, 2005, http://www.humanite.fr/node/340038, accessed April 3, 2014.

Image Sources:

Cathedral, Algiers, Algeria (1890s), United States Library of Congress 

Grand Mosque of Paris (2008), Eric Parker, Flickr Creative Commons