We often met with the same reactions; "Leave us alone" and "stop talking about us". It was in La Courneuve, a suburb on the north-east periphery of Paris, best-known for its fifties-era, low-income, high-rise housing projects, where Mediapart reporters spent three weeks interviewing Muslim men and women of different ages, backgrounds and occupations about their experiences of living with their faith in France today.
The Muslims we approached were often reticent because the National Assembly (French parliament) was in the midst of a controversial debate over the so-called Burqa Bill, a law which bans wearing burqas or niqhabs¹ in public places.
Many Muslims didn't appreciate being sucked into the political-media maelstrom over what they consider to be a There are too many books, too many news items" putting the spotlight on "false problems" which monopolise the attention of what they call "The French" (i.e. those of non-Muslim culture, although all the Muslims we interviewed are French).
The problems may be "false" but they nonetheless raise real fears. After much repetition, people believe that it's an established fact that Islam is incompatible with French society. The wearing of the niqhab or burqa is seen as the ultimate proof of the statement's veracity.
However, there are only 2,000 women in France who are veiled from head to toe, according to the authorities, who failed to explain how they arrived at this figure. The practice is thus rare but it gets so much attention that it veils more than just a face: it also hides the disparities within the community.
La Courneuve, in the département (county) of the Seine-Saint-Denis, just a short metro ride from downtown Paris, generates fear and misunderstanding. We talked to people whose only similarity is to feel Muslim. All of them are believers. But if some attend the mosque, others never set foot in one. If some of the women wear the niqhab, others reject it. Many have their family roots in North Africa, others in sub-Saharan Africa.
The ten individual stories we are presenting in this series do not paint a portrait of the entire community. We didn't put in a call to central casting. The interviews are the result of meetings - some fortuitous others organised. Finding Muslims in La Courneuve is easy; according to Hocine Bouhai, chair of neighbourhood Muslims' association 'Ouverture' (meaning overture, or openness), they make up about 50% of the population. But when it comes to interviewing them, the difficulties begin.
While there are no major hot-button issues at La Courneuve, there are certain situations and problems that are discussed with caution, for fear that they will be distorted and bloated. Limiting our focus to a town of 40,000 residents allowed us to get a good look at daily frictions without either overestimating or ignoring them.
1: A burqa is a garment worn by women to hide the entire body. Only the eyes are left semi-exposed. A niqhab is a combined headscarf and veil that covers the upper part of the body and leaves only the eyes exposed.