The egalitarian principles of the French republic would suggest that the state is blind to the creeds and private beliefs of its citizens. For the most part, this is correct. Its very particular brand of state-endorsed secularism projects a certain veneer of a republic to which all its citizens have an equal right. However, for France’s second-largest religious group, its Muslims, this blanket equality falls short. Decades of marginalization have characterized their experience, but since the government embarked on a struggle against what it calls “Islamist separatism,” many French Muslims feel that the xenophobia and discrimination they face has become mainstream.
The “laicite” (secularism) with which French policymakers are so obsessed mandates strict delineation between the state and the private sphere of personal beliefs. This wall between the two was originally meant to protect citizens from the intrusion of the state and the state from religious influence, which frequently raised its head throughout the country’s history. This arrangement has, however, come increasingly unstuck as the state seems to be involving itself more and more in the lives of its Muslim citizens.
For decades now, French presidents have stuck their noses into Islamic dress codes, dietary needs, and the plethora of religious institutions and places of worship modern France is home to. With an aging population struggling to cope with the societal transitions of post-imperial France, French leaders have sought to focus on the country’s Muslims as an electoral scapegoat in lieu of making the bold structural changes that are so desperately needed.