Jean Beaman November 2018
In many ways, at least to non-French people, having to pose this question seems absurd, but France has long been obsessed with itself, and in turn, with preserving its national identity and French culture. In 2009, the then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy launched a public debate on French national identity with the purpose of reaffirming French Republican values and pride in being French. Amid controversy for being cover for xenophobic sentiment, the debate was led by the Ministère de l’immigration, de l’intégration, de l’identité nationale et du développement solidaire, or Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity, and Codevelopment, was demolished in 2010. Yet, the obsession continues, as evidenced by anxiety about the presence of radical Muslims in France or the controversial ban over the burkini, the full-body swimsuit covering everything except the face, in summer 2016. Islam and Muslims in France have long been seen as a threat to the French republic itself.
One recent example is the current controversy over French Muslim rapper Médine (full name: Médine Zaouiche) and his scheduled performances at the Bataclan Concert Hall this October in Paris. The Bataclan was one of the sites of the November 2015 terrorist attacks throughout the Parisian metropolitan region, in which ISIS extremists took responsibility for the deaths and injuries of over 130 people. Earlier this summer, Médine announced his plan to perform there which was immediately met with outrage. Calls to French president Emmanuel Macron to put a halt to this performance intensified in recent months.
To many, that a practicing Muslim would perform at a site of a terrorist attacks committed by Islamic extremists was blasphemy. The hashtag #PasdeMedineauBataclan (No to Medine at the Bataclan) trended. Marianne LePen, the leader of the Far-Right Front Nationale party, decried his scheduled performance as well as unacceptable to French people. Heightened demonstrations led Médine to move his performance from the Bataclan to another concert hall in Paris, the Zenith, in February 2019. In his social media announcement canceling the Bataclan performance, he referenced demonstrations by some Far-Right groups as being harmful to the November 2015 victims and how this context would endanger the safety of concert patrons.
Following the 2005 uprisings which spread in banlieues, or suburban outskirt communities, throughout France following the killing by police of two ethnic minority youths, Médine wrote an article in TIME Magazine discussing the plight of descendants of immigrants like him, who in contrast to their forebears, do not see themselves as “guests” in France. They are just as French as any other French person. He asked, “How much more French can I be?” – which nicely captures the dilemmas he and other marginalized members of French society face.
In his article, Médine shared that “Islam is an enormous part of who I am, just as being French is. The two aren’t in opposition or even mutually exclusive. Yet, when you hear the debate in France today, you’d swear they must be.” He wrote this in 2005, yet the debate positioning Islam as oppositional to French society remains the same. The assumption that Muslims in France are not French or can even be French persists. This is despite how French Muslims see themselves. They do not separate themselves from mainstream society; rather, they are seen as separate from it. They are assigned an otherness that they did not choose.
Sociologist Richard Alba has argued that Islam is a “bright” boundary, or a strict boundary versus a blurred boundary, in Europe. I would extend this to consider how Islamophobia is a manifestation of racism, or reveals the existence of a racial and ethnic hierarchy. Due to its Republican ideology, race and ethnicity are not official categories and such differences are taboo to discuss. In this context, framing Muslims as “ethnoracial outsiders” becomes a more acceptable category of otherness. What this demonstrates is that racial and ethnic categories do not have to be officially legitimatized for racism to occur.
In my research, focusing on individuals like Médine, respondents who do not identify as practicing Muslims nonetheless feel marginalized because of their North African origins, because they are nonwhite. They are often lumped into a Muslim other category even if that identity is not especially important to them. They are treated as though they are not French, even if they identify as such. While France espouses a colorblind Republican ideology, race and ethnicity are very much present in the lives of non-white minorities.
And this is the case not just in France. Scholars have made similar arguments about the rest of the continent. Anthropologist Mikaela Rogozen-Soltar’s research demonstrates how ‘Muslim’ is also used as a category of difference and otherness in Spain. And as David Theo Goldberg has argued, much of Europe clings to itself as a white and Christian continent from which Islam sits apart. This explains why Médine performing at the Bataclan was so offensive to some. Therefore, the question of whether or not Muslims can be French too is not a question for Muslims to answer. It is a question for the rest of France – and Europe. And answering it requires reckoning with the Islamophobia and racism of which Europe has long ignored.
Jean Beaman is Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology at Purdue University, United States. She wrote Citizen Outsider: Children of North Africans Immigrants in France (California University Press, 2017).
 Médine. 2005. “How much more French Can I Be?” TIME Magazine 166(20), 11/14/2005. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1126720,00.html
 Alba, Richard. 2005. “Bright vs. Blurred Boundaries: Second-Generation Assimilation and Exclusion in France, Germany, and the United States.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 28:20-49.
 Bleich, Erik. 2006. “Constructing Muslims as Ethno-Racial Outsiders in Western Europe.” Council for European Studies Newsletter 36.
 Rogozen-Soltar, Mikaela. 2017. Spain Unmoored: Migration, Conversion, and the Politics of Islam. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
 Goldberg, David Theo. 2006. “Racial Europeanization.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 29(2): 331-364.