France is a historically powerful Roman Catholic nation in Western Europe that has a strong tradition of secularism, known as laïcité. French laïcité emerged out of a revolutionary effort to abolish the influence of the Catholic Church in French politics, and manifests today as various boundaries that limit the expression of religious identity to private life while maintaining a secularized public sphere.[1]

Christianity remains the majority faith in France at roughly 65% and Catholic culture predominates in French society, though recent studies show that less than 4% attend weekly church services. Those who do tend to be older than the average French citizen.[2] Agnostics and atheists make up almost 25%, nearly 9% of French citizens are Muslim, and there are smaller communities (less than 1%) of Buddhists, Hindus, and ethnoreligionists. Though similarly small, France’s Jewish community is the largest in Europe.[3]

Though religious and ethnic pluralism have always been a feature in France, it is expanding, bringing with it challenges to Republican “laïque” [secular] ideals. Especially relevant has been the growth of France’s large Muslim minority population, the majority who are French citizens descended from immigrants hailing from former French colonies in North and West Africa, or are immigrants from those regions.

These communities face levels of unemployment at twice the national rate and are disproportionately over- represented in low-income housing units in urban suburbs known as banlieues. As a result, many Muslims report difficulty integrating into French society and frustration with barriers to full “cultural” citizenship.[4]

On January 7, 2015, masked gunmen attacked the Paris offices of the French satire publication Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people, including four cartoonists, the magazine's editor, and a policeman. The shooters were French nationals of Algerian descent representing the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen (AQAP), which had targeted the secularist humor magazine in response to its mockery of Islam, and especially for its controversial comics ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad. That same afternoon, another gunman killed four people and held another sixteen hostage in a kosher grocery store outside of Paris.[5]  The complicated aftermath of the attacks included important discussions of free speech, minority politics, colonial history, anti-Semitism, and power.

The Charlie Hebdo shootings were followed by even larger-scale terrorist attacks in Paris. On Friday November 13, 2015, mass killings were arranged by ISIS to occur around the city, between the hours of 9:30pm and 12:30am. Hundreds were wounded, and a total of 130 people were killed. Eighty-nine of the victims were attending a concert at the Bataclan music hall when the venue was besieged by ISIS gunmen. Elsewhere in Paris, suicide bombers detonated their vests outside a soccer stadium, and bombed and opened fire on restaurant-goers at multiple locations. The victims were mostly French nationals, and included people of various faith backgrounds. In the days after the attacks, police carried out hundreds of raids across France and in Brussels, Belgium, in search of suspects. The suspected leader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was killed during a raid.

Hate crimes were enacted against Muslims in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, including epitaphs “death to Muslims” written across Mosques. However, there was also a great effort to support and protect Muslims from such abuse, and to respond to the Paris attacks as an interfaith community. A series of interfaith events were scheduled in Paris from November 12–22, including a march called “Rally with Muslims of France for Peace and National Unity." Four days after the Paris attacks, the Episcopal Cathedral of the Holy Trinity hosted Muslim theologians on the World Union of Experts of Islam for Peace and Against Violence, and invited Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders to attend.

The police raids that ensued in November continued into 2016, because under the state of emergency the police were granted the authority to search without warrants. The homes of many Muslims living in and near Paris have been searched, in addition to restaurants and mosques. These aggressive raids have produced new evidence about ISIS in France, but have also resulted in searches of many innocent Muslims’ homes and worship spaces. On some occasions the raids have injured children and damaged these sacred spaces. As a result, France’s response to the Paris attacks is contentious; many feel their extreme response is necessary and appropriate, while others fear their approach will alienate Muslim residents, encourage Islamophobia, and play into the hands of ISIS.

In July 2016, another large-scale terror attack unsettled the nation. 86 people were killed and over 400 were injured when a man drove a cargo truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day, France’s National Day, in Nice. The driver—killed by police at the site of the attack—was identified as Mohamed Lajouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian resident of France. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.

The specter of terrorism loomed large over the French 2017 presidential election. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen ran a campaign promising to vastly reduce immigration. Le Pen also said that she would compel those with dual-citizenship outside of Europe—a group primarily composed of Jewish Israelis and North African Muslims—to give up either their French citizenship or their other citizenship. Le Pen’s rhetoric focused on preserving the “Frenchness” of France against the perceived threats of Muslims “pray[ing] in the street,” the European Union, and multiculturalism broadly.

Le Pen’s opponent, Emmanuel Macron, emphasized his willingness to welcome refugees. A former banker and first-time politician, Macron proposed creating de-radicalization centers for former ISIS fighters and encouraging imams to be trained in France, rather than abroad. On May 7, 2017, Macron defeated Le Pen and became the youngest president in France’s history.

Some saw Macron’s decisive win as an indication that populist sentiment was on the decline in France. Others saw the unprecedented support for Le Pen’s extreme-right party—despite her ultimate loss—as a sign that anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments still hold great sway in the nation.


Historical Legacies→


[1] Grace Davie, “Religion and Laïcité,” in Modern France: Society in Transition, eds. Malcolm Cook and Grace Davie (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 195.

[2] Isabelle de Gaulmyn, “La France reste catholique, mais moins pratiquante,” La Croix, December 28, 2009,, accessed March 27, 2014; “ANALYSE: Le catholicism en France en 2009,” IFOP, July 2009,, accessed March 27, 2014.

[3] “Country: France,” World Religions Database, 2008,, accessed April 8, 2015.

[5] Franck Joannes, "A 17 heures, vendredi, les trois preneurs d’otages sont tués," Le Monde, October 1, 2015,, accessed October 12, 2015.

Image Source: Portrait. Photo by James Cao, Flickr Creative Commons

See also: France