Home > 2016 > Changing Rights of Minorities in France

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 30 New Delhi July 16, 2016

Changing Rights of Minorities in France

Sunday 17 July 2016

by Meghna Kajla

Citizenship in France and Debate on group Rights

The term used citizenship/rights will be interchangeable for both.

As T.H. Marshall explicates, citizenship is evolving and it’s a combination of three rights: civil, political and social. It is the combination of these three rights that makes citizenship. How does France define citizenship? The Republican French model of citizenship is based on the mixture of jus sanguinis and jus soli. (Steiner N., 2009) The country has come to be known with the assimilationist and liberal conception of citizenship. Assimilationist, liberal and universal conception of citizenship require citizens to give up their first languages and cultures to become full participants in the civic community of the nation-state. (James A. Banks)

France clearly explains citizenship on the basis of Frenchness, Lacilite and civic solidarity. It tries to categorise citizenship into three broad categories: French, French natives and foreigners. The citizenship is given by naturalisation and those of French natives are the people of Muslim origin. So the citizenship has been given according to their last names: if the last name is Islamic they are French Muslims; this is a separate category.1

So France tried to convert all the immigrants into one French identity. This indicates that citizenship is directly related to the assimilationist approach. This makes the particularities present in the society and marks the universalistic notion of citizenship. This debate on particu-laristic and universalistic notion of citizenship can be located in the South Asian region. (Jayal) The debate between group rights and individual rights gets a lead from giving rights to different minorities. The rights of minorities can be seen as recognition and representation. Individual rights assume the individual as a rational being and equal, it fails to see the social construction of a human being. Michel Rosenfield states: “The French model is thoroughly individualistic and leaves no room at constitutional level for recognition or deployment of group or national identity.” (M. Rosenfield, 2002) The liberal state does not give recognition to the groups; rather it approaches citizenship on individual basis, leaving no room for community, culture, ethnicity, religion. The history of divergence of the state and church gives secularism the basis to secularism in Europe. So there are causal factors for the rights of minorities as being different from the French. It is on this basis that France does not give rights to Muslim minorities. The state believes in radical secularism of divergence between the state and church. It does not give religious rights, ethnic rights to groups.

It is in France that the controversy over foulard was highly debated. The debate is whether these are individual rights on wearing clothes or do they speak of religious sentiments? This debate over group rights and individual rights is of much relevance to our research. The multicultural citizenship argues that certain marginalised groups should be given citizenship. As Kymlicka argues, group rights should be viewed as a form of external protection against majorities, rather than internal restriction of individual rights. The state of France recognises that if the practice of religion is private, the showcase of religious symbols should be private. Young also emphasises that certain groups are excluded; those who are not judged as capable of adopting the general point of view and adherence to ‘equal treatment’, necessarily privilege certain cultures and lifestyles over others. (Nick Stevenson 2003, p. 48) The claim made by Muslims for their religion to the state can be individual rights as well. As with the changing post-war era, the national citizenship rights have changed to human rights. (Soysal 1997) It is only through collective group rights that one has come to achieve the nation.

It is this debate on how the national rights have turned into human rights. They are individual and so should be the rights of minorities as individual and not group rights.

Muslim Minorities in France

The debate over the displaying of religious practice in France is highly contested. One cannot wear or showcase their sentiments in public. It is on the path of citizenship that the minorities and their cultures are assimilated into Frenchness. The diversity in population on the basis of ethnicity and religion has been curbed in France at the national level. So with the break of the 2005 riots in the suburb of Paris, it came to limelight that the distinctions are differences present in the society. The state failed in its assimilationist policy and the world for the very first time saw the intolerance among the people of France. To talk about the Muslims in France, it is the largest minority having about 6-8.5 per cent. This is the highest population of Muslims in any European country. The Muslims have migrated from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey.2 It is very difficult to know about the population of Muslims, as France does not provide statistics on the basis of ethnicity and race. So the data is according to the last names and also their origin.

The citizenship of France has been divided into the three categories, where the Muslim identity is only visible by their last names. These immigrants were workers from slave trade, as France was the coloniser of Algeria. The immigrants were brought to France as labourers and were given a status of “French by acquisition” but later in 1947 the assimilationist policy of France turned them them into French Muslims. They settled in the suburbs of Paris where most of the riots have occurred. The Muslims have created mosques and they have about 1500 Muslim organisations. With this one can see that the Muslims have been accommo-dated as President Sarkozy’s view on funding mosques became controversial. According to Alec Hargreaves,3 it has also been regarded that Muslims have changed and assimilated in the French society, they more or less accept the norms of the society. In fact they have changed in relation to France’s socio-cultural society.

Riots in France

There have been a series of anger in the population of France. It is mostly in the Muslim- dominated areas. It can have many causal factors. It could be due to their economic and social status in the society. The Muslims in France are living in ghetto-type compounds and there has been constant police surveillance in the area. The history of riots in France dates back to 2005. It was a suburb where young boys jumped into an electricity substation for fear of being caught by the police because there was checking going on in the suburb. Threatened with being caught by the police, the teenagers jumped into the substation and died.

The statistics provide a data on how the Muslims in France are employed, problems they face at the time of interview and how they qualify for an interview.4 It can be seen from this analysis that Muslims receive low response in regard to their CVs accepted and call for interview. This makes the rate of employment within the Muslims quit low. The society in a manner does not accept Muslims as part of their community. The debate on whether the nationalist model of citizenship should prevail or there should be multiculturalism has been already explained.

The riots did not stop after the 2005 riots, a state of national emergency was imposed. It is the state of emergency which is important for us in reconfiguring the rights of minorities. I will elaborate on the same later in the paper. The Charlie Hebdo magazine printing a cartoon of Mohammed, this was accompanied with the killing of writers of the magazine in 2015. The act of blasphemy has been considered only on the Christian ideology and not Islamic. A similar debate occurred in the Dutch society, after the cartoonist drew a cartoon of Mohammed in a paper. This was seen as an attack on Islam. A similar sentiment has been seen in France after Charlie Hebdo. But the society rose with placards of Je suis Charlie. The Paris attack of November 13 at five locations shook France. The effects can be seen with the imposition of the emergency for six long months. It is this power of the state to impose emergency that needs to be analysed and problematised. The nationalist model of France failed in assimilating cultures.5 The Paris attack can be seen in relation to many aspects of the society. The state can look at it from many aspects, including Muslim minorities in France and the wave of immigration due to the ISIS war on Syria. The debate in the world over the migration wave has taken the centre-stage due to the human rights and hospitality6 practised by states. As Germany allowed a certain number of refugees, other countries have allowed refugees or asylum seekers to pass through.

Theoretical Debate on the Rights of Minorities

The minorities in every country are considered as bare life.7 The concept of bare life stands on the practice of the state of inclusion and exclusion of citizens. The inequality in the majority and minorities of any state, till they are not represented equally, results in the minorities continuing to be a victim of bare life. The republican state of France manages to ascertain separation between the church and state, the public and private. This raises the debate on not allowing schoolgirls to wear foulard and scarf in 2004. The display of religion was condemned by the state policy. It is since the debate on Muslim minority from the headscarf that they are considered as minorities in their own nation. The rights of these minorities are being reconfigured and also with the policies of the state changing. This gained a lot of debate in world affairs. There have been incidents and cases on which the Muslims have been targeted. Starting from the Charlie Hebdo, 2005 riots, this change redefined the way Muslims were being treated. The 2004 foulard debate and 2005 riots changed the rights of Muslims. The Paris attack seems to be the most shocking attack in France; this has changed a lot of what is happening in the society. After having been drawn into the scenario of migration and minorities in France, the Muslims have been looked at from a very different perspective. Not only with the French people but the state has been trying to redefine the whole notion of citizenship. At the time of emergency the state redefined and reconfigured the rights of minorities. To borrow the concept of bio-politics8 from Foucault, he describes the micro power of the state to study a human body precisely. He has elaborated this in his lectures delivered at the College de France. The concept of bio-power comes with neo-liberalism as the state policy.

What is bio-politics? It is the microphysics of the human body, a detailed study of the human body. This idea gave rise to the new art of government in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A series of Foucault’s concept can be devised like surveillance, governmentality. Governmentality9 is a new art of governance with the help of different administrative bodies of government. It is with the neo-liberalist state that the practice of bio-politics comes into being. Foucault states: “Police state entails precisely an objective or set of objectives that could be described as unlimited, since for those who govern in the police state it is not only a matter of taking into account and taking charge of the activity of groups and orders, that is to say of different types of individuals with their particular status, but also by taking charge of activity at the most detailed, individual level.” This new art of governance, called govern-mentality by Foucault, is about the constant and detailed surveillance of the state over its citizens. These were the techniques that gave power to the state over the citizens. This idea of governmentality can be related to the way the state uses its power over the citizens to make them feel protected. This protects some from the others. The division of self and the other, where the self gives power against the other. This idea of Foucault will be used in the way the rights of Muslim minorities are being reconfigured in France. The Paris attack over five locations leaving 130 people dead and several injured came as a shock to France as such an attack was never faced by the state.

It is for various reasons relating to security that the state pushes the surveillance and police to the front. There are those citizens who have to be protected and some about whom the state does not seem to care much (minorities). The Muslims living in France are the bare life, to use Agamben’s term. It is the state that decides for some to be included and others to be excluded. Most cases come from the minorities being excluded and the majority gets included. France disregards to recognise itself as a multicultural state. It tried to make the population fall into the straight line of equality. This was an artificial divide, according to some scientists, because the society and its contradictions are really impor-tant at the time of driving policies. It is on this basis that the Muslims of France have more or less tried to adapt and evolve with the French society but claims of inequality have nevertheless been made. The state, as Foucault describes, takes particular care about its citizens and it is in this that there are certain citizens whose status is accommo-dated, redefined for the comfort of others.

The state reconfigures the rights of Muslims in France on the basis of the power that it exercises over its citizens. It is not in terms of legitimate force10 that it is exercised but a different kind of power which is, in Foucault’s term, reproductive.11 The subjects give power to the state in order for the state to become powerful. It is through the unseen power and its various techniques that the state uses to reinforce the concept of security. The subjects give power to the state and in return the latter defines various laws to protect the subjects. The state has a relationship of the protector with its citizens. The certain laws defined by the state tend to be equal before law but the differentiation occurs at the time of the state of emergency, where state has the power to suspend laws and govern in its own way. I will not go into details of the civil and political rights of an individual, which gets suspended along with the emergency. It is the state that reconfigures the rights of the state. As can be seen in France after the Paris attack, Muslim houses have been raided because of the ‘Islamophobia’ present in the society. In what terms are the rights reconfiguring? La police de recherché etd’intervention.12 It is raiding the Muslim houses, interrogations are taking place and every Islamic person is being viewed from a very secluded eye, the police is constantly outside their houses. There is anger in the society and the suburb has police as souvenirs.13 It is in this manner that the rights of Muslims living in France are being reconfigured.

The term reconfigured means to re-structure or re-model differently. It is with this that the basic rights of Muslims living in France are reconfigured. The issue is different whether it will be done for the French as well or not. This will be done in terms of the security threat that the state faces. It has to be seen from the perspective of Muslims living in France. This will also affect the migration that has been taking place at the international level. With Germany accepting migrants and the state of France not accepting refugees by giving a statement of security threat to the nation, also creates a debate on human rights and calls the cosmopolitan notion of citizenship into question. (Soysal) Muslims and their rights are being reconfigured with changes being brought about in their daily lives. There had been troubles with employment and education-related issues and when such an attack is tackled by the state, it tries to ensure the security and governance at the micro level. So have the Muslim citizens the same rights and do they also practise them? Have the rights been reconfigured? The rights, as can be seen from the newspapers, media and magazines, have been listed out by the state to ensure that no other attack of the same sort takes place. The rights of Muslims are not the same not only after the attack but it leaves a taboo for Islam in the society.

Debate on Policy

The debate on rights depends on the govern-ment’s ruling. If the leaning of the government is towards the Right, then the policies enunciated by the same will be changing the horizon of rights accordingly. The local elections in France were just round the corner after the Paris attack. The Right-leaning party will be nationalist and strict with the immigration policy and also towards the minorities as one party, the National Front of Jean Marie La Pen, behaves in that way. It will act as a pressure on the Parti Socialist of Francois Holland, the present President of France elected in 2011, and force it to carry out restrictive and strict policies towards the immigrants. The National Front party had sent shock waves by not accepting immigrants in 2003 when Sarkozy was the Interior Minister.

The history of Muslims in France dates back to the days of colonialism and it is the effect of slave trade for which France has to accommodate them. The elections won by the National Front in December 2015 was a sign of aggression among the people of France regarding the Jihadist and Islamophobia being experienced in the society. It is also to be seen that the people have voted because of the Paris attack and Je suis Charlie taglines. The party coming to power effects the policies and functioning of the state.

The French society has been a multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multicultural society but the idea of citizenship modulated by the state leaves no room for debates and adjustment to the diversity. But the policies adopted by the state have always been on the path of liberalism and the debate is on whether the liberal states should be accommodating immigrants. (Seyla Ben Habib) The debate that liberal states have always been accommodative to unwanted labour can be correctly located in the case of France where it has always accommodated the minorities but with its own policies. (Joppke)


The rights of the minorities in every state are reconfigured by the state especially when there is a threat perceived by the state from outside or inside. Foucault highlights the power of governance given to the state by the citizens themselves. It is the state which further recon-figures certain rights the minorities can exercise as seen in France. The state of emergency is another excuse to exploit the minorities as the civil and political rights of minorities are curbed. It is through this state mechanism of emergency that the state further exercises its power. It is not today that the debate over French Muslims will be over but whenever there arises a threat to the state, it will again reconfigure their rights. After being reconfigured do the rights of the minorities remain permanent or are they temporary? The social conditions of the minorities do not change for long and leave a taboo but do the legal rights remain permanent? As they can be raided after two years for the same cause and interrogated, their right to privacy in this manner remains curbed. The surveillance and taboo with the French Muslims will stay on as it did after 9/11.


Foucault, M. (2004), The Birth of Bio-politics, Lectures at the College de France.

Levevy, G.B. and Madood, T. (2009), Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship.

Willes, E. (2007), Headscarves, human rights, and harmonious multicultural society: Implications of the French ban for interpretation of Equality.

Stevenson, N. (2003), Cultural Citizenship.

Steiner, N. (2009), International Migration and Citizenship Today.

Rosenfield, M. (2009), ‘The identity of the constitutional subject; Selfhood, citizenship, culture and community’.

Retrieved: December 14 2015, French Politics and Society, Vol. 15, No 2 (Spring 1997), pp. 67-70.

Retrieved: December 14, 2015, Changing Parameters of citizenship and claims-making: Organised Islam in European Public Sphere, Vol. 26, No 4 (Spring 1997), pp. 507-597.

Retrieved: December 13, 2015, ‘Diversity, Group Identity and Citizenship Education in Global Age’, Educational Researcher Vol. 37, No 3 2008, pp. 129-139.

Retrieved: December 13,2015, ‘The choice of ignorance: The Debate on Ethnic and Racial Statistics in France’, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 7-31.

Retrieved: March 23,2010, ‘Why Liberal states accept unwanted immigration’, Vol. 50, No. 2 (1998). p. 266-293.


Marshall T.H. (1950) Citizenship and Social Class and other essays.

Miller, D. (2000), Citizenship and National Identity.

Agamben, G. (1998), Homo sacer Sovereign Power and Bare life.

Foucoult, M. (2004), The Birth of Biopoltics, Lectures at the College de France.

Browen, J.R “Pluralism and Normativity in French Islamic Reasoning, chap 13.

Stevenson, N. (2003), Cultural Citizenship.

Steiner, N. (2009), International Migration and Citizenship Today.

Levevy, G.B. and Madood, T. (2009), Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship.

Willes, E. (2007), Headscarves, human rights, and harmonious multicultural society: Implications of the French ban for interpretation of Equality.

Rosenfield, M. (2009), The identity of the constitutional subject; Selfhood-citizenship, culture and community.

Retrieved: December 13, 2015, ‘Religious Expression in Public Schools: Kirpans in Canada, hijab in France’. (1997), pp. 545-561.

Doi: 10.1080/01419870.1997.9993974.

Retrieved: December 13, 2015, ‘The Return of assimilation? Changing perspective on immigration and its sequels in France, Germany and United states’, (2001), pp. 531-548.

Doi: 10.1080/01419870120049770.

Retrieved: December 13, 2015, ‘National models of integration in Europe: A comparative and critical analysis’ (2011 Sage pub), pp. 1-20.

Doi: 10.1177/0002764211409560.

Retrieved: December 14 2015, ‘French Politics and society’ Vol. 15, No 2 (Spring 1997), pp. 67-70.

Retrieved: December 14, 2015, ‘Changing Parameters of citizenship and claims-making: Organized Islam in European Public Sphere’ Vol. 26, No 4, (Springer 1997), pp. 507-597.

Retrieved: December 13, 2015, ‘Diversity, Group Identity and citizenship Education in Global Age’, Educational Researcher, Vol. 37, No 3, 2008, pp. 129-139.

Doi: 10.3102/0013189X08317501.

Retrieved: December 13,2015, ‘The choice of ignorance: The Debate on Ethnic and Racial Statistics in France’, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 7-31.

Retrieved: March 23,2010, ‘Why Liberal states accept unwanted immigration’, Vol. 50, No. 2(1998). pp. 266-293.


1. This category of Muslims in France is highlighted in the paper written by Patrick Simon ‘The choice of ignorance: the debate on ethnic and racial statistics in France’. Spring 2008 pp. 7-31.

2. This is the data collected through http://www.euro-islam.info/country-profiles/france. I am relying on this data for the number of Muslims in France.

3. Alec Hargreaves writes on France ethnicity, racism and culture. He writes in his book Multi-ethnic France that Muslims of France have tried to adjust according to society of France and they have done this very exceptionally.

4. ‘Identifying barriers to Muslim integration in France’, Claire L. Adidaa, David D. Laitinb, 1, and Marie-Anne Valfortc.

5. Christophe Bertossi, ‘National models of integration in Europe’, Sage Publications, 2011.

6. Hospitality by Derrida. It gives a sense of how to accommodate the migrants by the state. The should welcome refugees, migrants and later on the legal basis should give accommodation. The states should not close doors.

7. Giorgio Agamben: the concept of bare life refers to the Roman law, which barred any human, who committed certain crime his rights of being a citizen will be scarepped. He could be killed by anybody.

8. The birth of Bio Politics Lectures at the College De France 1978-1979’ The concept of bio-power of Foucault tries to make sense of security, population and territory. Bio-power is the new rationality of government. Though the term first appeared in “The will to knowledge”

9. ‘Governmentality’ is an idea of Foucault’, He conceptualises a police state form of governance in the eighteenth century.

10. Max Weber’s concept of legitimacy that a state has authority to use force.

11. Foucault describes reproductive power by describing the relationship as not dominating rather the subject produces power and the state reproduces power. It is a mutual and positive relationship.

12. ‘Le Canard enchaine’, Joounal Satriqueparaissant le mercredi, December 9, 2015. It gave a detail on how the raids, interrogations after the Paris attack.

13. Courier international.com N 1310 du 10 au 16 decembre 2015.

The author is an M.Phil scholar at the Delhi University’s Department of Political Science. Here is the paper she wrote for her course work in M.Phil at the University.