Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - France : North Africans

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - France : North Africans, 2008, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


As the French government keeps no official statistics on the number of Muslims in France, the estimates vary widely from 3 per cent to 10 per cent of the population. The majority of Muslims come from the North African colonies of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, the majority of whom have French nationality. In 2004, a study by the National Institute of Democratic Studies (INSED) found there were approximately 1.5 million from these countries with foreign nationality, approximately 675,000 Algerians, 625,000 Moroccans and 225,000 Tunisians.

There are three versions of Arabic and two Berber languages spoken, as well as French. Some are bilingual in Arabic and Berber. Algerian Arabic has at least 660,000 speakers, Moroccan Arabic 492,000, Tunisian Arabic 212,900, while 537,000 speak Kabyle and 150,000 Tamazight, the two Berber languages.

The majority live in cities, especially Paris. There are concentrations of North African and Muslim communities in the regions of Ile-de-France and Nord-Pas-de-Calais in the north-west and Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur and Rhône-Alpes in the south-east.

Historical context

Algeria was conquered by France by 1830 and gained independence in 1962. Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912 (Treaty of Fez) until it achieved independence in 1956. Tunisia, a French protectorate from 1881, also became independent in 1956.

In 1873 the French government began to expropriate Algerian land for French settlers, known as 'pieds noirs', who came to monopolize the fertile land. Initially the need for seasonal farm labour was met by Kabyle Berbers from the mountains, but as agriculture became more commercial, the displaced plains Algerians replaced the Kabyle, who migrated to France. Algerians were regarded as French subjects and had the right to full citizenship, but only if they renounced Islam and converted to Christianity. The Algerians' arrival in the French cities was strongly resented by the French working class.

In the First World War Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians were recruited into the army and many thousands died. During and after the war they relieved labour shortages. Most were repatriated after a short time to be replaced by others. French race hatred towards the immigrants reached a peak in 1923-4. The first mosque was opened in Paris by Algerians in 1926. French antagonism towards the immigrants increased again in the 1930s during the economic depression. The Algerian independence movement was launched in the inter-war years.

Moroccans and Tunisians were accused of collaborating with the Vichy government during the Second World War. In Algeria the 1945 victory celebration became a rebellion against colonial rule, which was met with savage reprisals. From 1954 to 1962 there was a bloody civil war in Algeria between the colonial government representing the French settler elite and Algerian nationalists. The colonial government and French Army officers opposed the French government's attempts to make peace, which led to the French government's collapse in 1958. The issue bitterly divided French opinion. General Charles de Gaulle, the Second World War hero, was voted in as President, but instead of supporting the colonists as they expected, he announced a referendum for Algerian to choose whether to stay part of France or to become independent.

From 1945 Algerians, Tunisians and Moroccans were recruited to help in the post-war reconstruction of France. In 1947 the French government granted French citizenship to all Algerians and freedom of movement between Algeria and France. Algerian immigrants were subject to violent attacks during the independence war. After 1962 the French government restricted immigration. Some 500,000 Algerians returned from France to Algeria. The colonist 'pieds noirs' were given grants to resettle in France, including Corsica, where they gained control of the vineyards and the wine trade. Between 80,000 and 100,000 'Harkis' - Algerians who had fought on the side of the colonists - also came to France, many of them settling in the south. Despised by both the host population and their fellow Algerians, they were held in special camps for their own protection. There is still animosity between 'Harkis' and other Algerians.

In 1962 there were around 350,000 French Muslims in France, but Algerians alone numbered 470,000 in 1968 and 800,000 by 1982. In 1974 the government ended its recruitment of immigrants, imposed fines on employers who hired illegal immigrants, and put a stop to family reunification. However, the Conseil d'Etat (the highest court) ruled in 1978 that a ban on family reunification was unlawful. The government offered grants to immigrants if they returned home, but the North Africans did not take up the offer. Numbers have continued to rise, mainly through family reunification and children born in France. There has also been illegal immigration.

Despite international criticism of the Algerian military government's annulment of the general elections which would have returned the civilian Islamist movement to power in 1991, the French government appeared to have cooperated with the Algerian government in seeking out and deporting Algerian dissidents in the mid-1990s.

Current issues

For many years the government followed a policy of assimilation rather than integration for new immigrants. In 2003 the government adopted an integration policy and now requires immigrants arriving in France to sign an integration contract, giving a commitment to follow instruction in French social values, in order to obtain a residence permit.

The segregation of many North Africans in city and suburban ghettoes results from the 1950s housing policy of the government for temporary immigrants, as well as from low-paid work, the different culture, language and religion, and the rejection of the new immigrants by the indigenous population. There is discrimination in housing, education and employment, and unemployment is higher than the national average. Around half of the prison population is Muslim, the majority of whom are North African, although Muslims account for only 6-10 per cent of the population. There have been racist attacks by individuals and gangs against the communities especially since the 11 September 2001 events. The bombings of Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 added to the number of incidents. Several mosques were fire-bombed or desecrated in 2005.

The government's vigilance in seeking out extreme Islamist dissidents has also increased since the 11 September 2001 events, based on a November 2001 security law, which allows search without a warrant under certain circumstances. This has been met with antagonism in the North African communities. That such dissidents are often in political opposition to the governments of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia adds a further element of complexity, especially when immigrants have sought asylum in France. There is a low rate of French government acceptance of Algerian asylum seekers.

In 2003 the government took the initiative in forming the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (CFCM) as the organization to represent the Islamic community in France. A single organization is required by the government to accord French mosques and Islamic organizations the same rights to tax exemption as those of other recognized religions. The CFCM is also intended to open a dialogue between the government and the community regarding Muslim practices. However, the organization was paralysed by disagreement between the main community federations until a new committee was elected in September 2006. There have been complaints from the community of interference from the French and other governments, and that the CFCM does not do enough to stand up for Muslim rights in France.

The president of the CFCM, the leader of the Paris Mosque, and the vice-president, the leader of the Marseilles Mosque, are favoured by the French and Algerian governments. The Paris Mosque is funded by the Algerian government and most of its members are Algerian. It has 500 affiliated cultural and social associations.

Before the CFCM was created the French government consulted the Paris Mosque, the Fédération Nationale des Musulmans de France (FNMF), the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UOIF) and other organizations. The FNMF was set up in 1985 and the organizations affiliated to it mainly represent Moroccans and Turks. The organizations represented by the UOIF, set up in 1983, are mostly Moroccan and Egyptian. A Moroccan spokesman of the UOIF has been accused by the president of the CFCM of being an Islamic extremist. Moroccan leaders have accused the Paris Mosque of being too close to the Algerian government.

One of the reasons for the creation of the CFCM was for the French government to approve and provide funding for imams as poor training and low salaries of imams were blamed for fostering an extremist Muslim subculture. According to a survey conducted in 2003 by the King Baudoin Foundation, half of France's 1,000 imams were permanent residents, while less than half received regular salaries and one-third spoke little or no French. The CFCM and French government agreed to establish new training programmes at universities and the government has drafted a law requiring imams from abroad to undertake citizenship and French-language training.

In 2004 the government introduced a law banning the wearing of overtly religious symbols such as the Islamic headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban and heavy Christian crosses by pupils and staff at schools. The aim was to keep education secular, and thus reduce inter-faith tension, but the effect was the opposite. A number of Muslim girls were expelled from school for defying the ban. The media publicity given to these events has engendered discrimination and race hatred and Islamic women wearing headscarves have become among the most likely targets of racist violence.

Members of the right-wing political party Front National (FN) have made many anti-Islamic and anti-North African statements since 11 September 2001. The leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was convicted for inciting racial hatred.

Copyright notice: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.

Search Refworld