Seen from La Courneuve

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The French government's move this year to ban the wearing of the burqa or niqhab in public led to passionate debate about multi-culturalism and national identity. Mediapart talked to Muslim men and women of different ages, backgrounds and occupations to learn their views of the issues and what it is to live with their faith in France.
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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.

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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.

'If you don't wear a scarf, you can be called a whore'

Everyone agrees on one fact: in La Courneuve, religious practice is both more widespread and more ostentatious than it was a few years ago. "There are more veils and headscarves than five or six years ago," notes Communist Party mayor Gilles Poux. He sees this as a negative development; "This rise in religious sentiment, of any religion, doesn't encourage human freedom," he explains. "The trouble is, faced with life's problems, people seek in religion what they don't find elsewhere in society."

The mayor's Socialist opponent, Stéphane Troussel, agrees. "There is a mushrooming of small prayer rooms: evangelist churches, Indian temples. In the [Christian] churches there are more people than 10 or 15 years ago, especially people from the French West Indies," he comments.

On Fridays, the faithful burst from the seven 'mosques' in La Courneuve. Before the local elections last March, the mayor decided that the community should build "a mosque worthy of the name" and accorded a long-term lease on favourable terms for a plot in the city centre. But "the project would cost about four million euros," mayor Poux now argues, "and the population is poor. The capacity to organise isn't there." The project immediately created tensions and led to power struggles. After the local elections, Indian Muslims bought a house to use as their own cultural and prayer centre. Completion of the mosque project, scheduled for 2013, seems very uncertain.

In the meantime, existing mosques, such as the one on Place François Villion, which opened in 1982, overflow onto the streets. But this steady attendance and high visibility doesn't necessarily indicate radicalisation.

"Job discrimination" is the major problem linked to Islam says Hassan Safoui, executive board member of the UOIF, The Union of French Islamic Organisations. The UOIF is headquartered at La Courneuve, and their mosque will soon expand. As for other issues, in public services, for example, "these concern such a small number of cases that they're not worth mentioning. Everything is blown out of proportion. All it takes is for a woman or two to refuse care by a male doctor for it to be picked-up and repeated over and over again."

The mayor says such cases are "rare" at the public-health medical centre. "In two years, there were maybe ten or 12 cases of this kind out of about 300 visits per day at the centre. It's a micro-phenomenon even if it is true that ten years ago it didn't happen at all. But there is no reason for concern," he concludes.

In another revered public institution, the education system, the concerns and debates are more numerous. While many Muslims regret that it was passed, the 2004 law banning headscarves in schools has not raised any practical application problems. Even more astounding, there was no resulting influx to the Islamic secondary school 'La Réussite' (meaning 'Success'), situated in neighbouring Aubervillers.

But this doesn't mean the question is settled. Although a majority of Muslims believe that most of the young women who wear headscarves do so freely (see Nora's portrait coming next in this series), mayor Poux is not convinced that is always the case. "There is a social pressure on young women to follow the rules," he says. "In the public housing estates, if you don't wear the scarf, if you wear shorts, you can be called a whore. You didn't hear that sort of thing 15 years ago."

'What do we do if Hindus refuse beef?'

For most of the young women interviewed, the issue is a "cultural problem" rather than a religious one. The head teacher and his deputy of one middle secondary school in La Courneuve told us, off the record, that they are shocked at the comments they hear. "Just because they are ‘going steady' girls are singled out as whores and ostracised by other self-righteous young girls. But it's not necessarily the girls from the most pious families that are the most intolerant," they say.

As long as there is no violence, the principal stays out of it. On the other hand, when, in the name of religion, families refuse participation in certain school activities, he is directly concerned. In his school, where three quarters of the student body is Muslim, out of 80 girls in the French 6th grade (aged 11) who should be taking swimming classes, there are regularly one or two cases that pose a problem every year. The school refuses to back down in these situations nor does it give in over physical education classes, nor when families find all sorts of excuses so that "their daughters avoid physical contact with boys".

The principal of another collège (middle secondary school) we spoke to, previously confronted with similar issues in another town in the Seine-Saint-Denis, has a more moderate view. "It's difficult to sort out the religious problems from those linked to co-ed schools, to teenagers and to the pretext of religion which is used to get exempted from sports," he explains.

Natural science classes can also lead to protests. This year, two families kept their daughters out of class. "They don't represent anyone but themselves," says Hocine Bouhai, chair of 'Overture', visibly irritated by the question. "Those families represent only themselves, they are not acting in an organised manner. We have to stop focusing on exceptions."

Nonetheless, these issues are a concern for some. The principal of one of the two schools quoted above, talks of his "discomfort" when he meets students' parents on Saturday mornings and cannot shake the hands of all the mothers. He speaks of his deep unease when a "bearded" part-time teacher showed up to apply for a job. "Fortunately, he didn't want to work on Friday afternoons so he withdrew his application on his own," he recounts. "But we would not have hired him. No more than we would hire a woman with a large cross around her neck."

He has a lot to say about a subject much debated in the schools: the "substitution meal" proposed to all Muslims, once a month, on those days when pork is on the menu. La Courneuve is the only town served by the Siresco (Intercity Union of Collective Catering) that does not propose a substitution meal. The battle became political. "There was a feeling of not wanting to be picked out as an example," explains the mayor, who nonetheless says he suggested a policy "orientation" towards offering the substitute meal two years ago.

That "orientation" seems to have gone unnoticed. "It's difficult to implement," Poux said, though it appears he didn't give the measure much impetus. "It got a frosty reception and there was no real motivation in the [administrative] services to implement it. We find ourselves in a weak position. If the Hindus tell us they don't want to eat beef, what do we do? We already have requests for halal1. There is a fear that this will build up."

The UOIF is clear about its demands. A halal dish should be proposed to the Muslims each time meat is served in the lunchroom. The mayor disagrees and says the issue is not on the table "for the time being". And it might never be. According to the Muslims we met, the halal question is far from their real concerns.

1: Halal food is prepared according to Islamic ritual.

 

English version: Patricia Brett

Next in the series Muslims in France: Nora's story: 'my hijab is my freedom'

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