The Muslim population of France reached 6.5 million in 2015, or around 10% of the overall population of 66 million. In real terms, France has the largest Muslim population in the European Union, just above Germany.
Although French law prohibits the collection of official statistics about the race or religion of its citizens, this estimate is based on several studies that attempted to calculate the number of people in France whose origins are from Muslim-majority countries.
What follows is a chronological review of some of the main stories about the rise of Islam in France during 2015:
January 1. The Interior Ministry announced the most anticipated statistic of the year: a total of 940 cars and trucks were torched across France on New Year’s Eve, a 12% decrease from the 1,067 vehicles burned during the annual ritual on the same holiday in 2014. Car burnings, commonplace in France, are often attributed to rival Muslim gangs that compete with each other for the media spotlight over which can cause the most destruction. An estimated 40,000 cars are burned in France every year.
January 3. A 23-year-old Muslim man in Metz tried to strangle a police officer while shouting “Allahu Akbar!” (“Allah is the greatest!”). The assault took place at the police station after the man, who was arrested for purse-snatching, asked the officer to bring him a glass of water. When the policeman opened the cell door, the man lunged at him. The officer was rescued by a colleague who saw the scene unfold on a video surveillance camera.
January 7-9. A series of jihadist attacks in Paris left 17 people dead. The first and deadliest of the attacks occurred on January 7, when French-born Islamic radicals Chérif and Saïd Kouachi stormed the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo and fatally shot eight employees, two police officers, and two others, and injured eleven other people. On January 8, a third assailant in the attacks, Amedy Coulibaly, shot and killed municipal police officer Clarissa Jean-Philippe in Montrouge, a suburb of Paris. On January 9, Coulibaly entered a HyperCacher kosher supermarket in Paris, killed four people and took several hostages. Coulibaly was killed when police stormed the store. His female accomplice, Hayat Boumeddiene, France’s “most wanted woman,” remains at large and is believed to have fled to Syria.
Last January, Amedy Coulibaly (left) murdered a policewoman and four Jews in Paris, before being shot dead by police.
Right: Medics carry a victim wounded in an attack by Islamist terrorists, who shot hundreds of concert-goers, killing 90, at the Bataclan theater in Paris on November 13, 2015.
January 18. A poll by the firm, Institut français d’opinion publique (IFOP), published by Journal du Dimanche,showed that 42% of French people oppose the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, such as those published by Charlie Hebdo, and indicated they believed there should be “limitations on free speech online and on social networks.” The vast majority (81%) said they favored stripping French nationality from dual nationals who have committed an act of terrorism on French soil. More than two-thirds (68%) said that French citizens should be banned from returning to the country if “they are suspected of having gone to fight in countries or regions controlled by terrorist groups.”
January 20. Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the terrorist attacks exposed a “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid” that is plaguing France. In a speech described as one of the strongest indictments of French society ever by a government figure, Valls said there was an urgent need to fight discrimination, especially in impoverished suburbs that are home to many Muslim immigrants. He said that despite years of government efforts to improve conditions in run-down neighborhoods, many people have been relegated to living in ghettos. He added:
“The social misery is compounded by daily discrimination, because someone does not have the right family name, the right skin color, or because she is a woman. I am not making excuses, but we have to look at the reality of our country.”
January 21. Valls announced a €736 million ($835 million) program to augment its anti-terrorism defenses amid a rapidly expanding jihadist threat. He said the government would hire and train 2,680 new anti-terrorist judges, security agents, police officers, electronic eavesdroppers and analysts over the next three years. The government will also spend €480 million on new weapons and protective gear for police. The initiative includes an enhanced online presence based on a new government website called “Stop Djihadisme.”
January 27. Police arrested five suspected jihadists, aged 26 to 44, in dawn raids in Lunel, a small town near the Mediterranean coast. At least ten, and possibly as many as 20 people from the town — with a population of just 25,000 — have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with the Islamic State.
January 28. An Ipsos/Sopra-Steria poll produced for Le Monde and Europe 1 Radio found that 53% of French citizens believe the country is “at war” and 51% feel that Islam is “incompatible” with the values of French society.
Also in January, artwork depicting women’s shoes on Muslim prayer rugs was removed from an exhibition in the Paris suburb of Clichy-la-Garenne after the Federation of Islamic Associations of Clichy warned it might provoke “uncontrollable, irresponsible incidents.” The artwork, made by the French-Algerian artist Zoulikha Bouabdellah, included high-heel shoes placed on the center of prayer rugs in shades of blue, white and red, symbolizing the French flag. She said she did not consider the work to be blasphemous, but curator Christine Ollier said it would be removed to “avoid polemics.” The act of self-censorship was criticized by other artists, who said that the freedom of expression was being undermined.
February 5. A teacher at France’s only state-funded Muslim faith school quit his job, saying that the Averroès Lycée (high school) in Lille was a hotbed of “anti-Semitism, sectarianism and insidious Islamism.” In an article published by Libération, philosophy teacher Sofiane Zitouni wrote:
“The reality is that Averroès Lycée is a Muslim territory that is being funded by the state. It promotes a vision of Islam that is nothing other than Islamism. And it is doing it in an underhand and hidden way in order to maintain its state funding.”
The school’s director, Hassan Oufker, said he would sue Zitouni, of Algerian descent, for defamation.
February 12. The Union of French Muslim Democrats (L’Union des démocrates musulmans Français, UDMF), a start-up Muslim political party, said it had begun fielding candidates in local elections in eight cities in France. UDMF founder Najib Azergui said his group wants to give a voice to the country’s Muslim community by: promoting Islamic finance; promoting the use of Arabic in French schools; working to overturn France’s ban on wearing the veil in schools, and fighting against the “dangerous stigmatization that equates Islam with terrorism.”
February 15. The government announced a series of measures to clamp down on the radical Islam being spread in mosques, including a ban on financial support from countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. French Muslims opposed the move. Karim Bouamrane, a socialist politician said:
“If foreign countries are stepping in to fund mosques, it is because the French government won’t. Muslims cannot run the risk of refusing cash from outside, because the French government won’t allocate them funds to build mosques.”
Bouamrane said France’s 1905 law separating Church and State should be changed to allow the French state to provide financial support for Muslim worship.
February 16. Nacer Bendrer, a 26-year-old French citizen, was extradited to Belgium for his role in the May 20214 jihadist attack against the Jewish Museum in Brussels. He is suspected of helping compatriot Mehdi Nemmouche, 29, carry out the attack in which four people were murdered. When arrested near Marseilles, Bendrer was in possession of a Kalashnikov type of assault rifle, two automatic pistols and a shotgun. Bendrer and Nemmouche reportedly met while in prison in Salon-de-Provence in southern France between 2008 and 2010.
February 23. For the first time ever, French authorities confiscated the passports and identity cards of six French citizens who were allegedly planning to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. The government said it might seize the passports of at least 40 others.
February 25. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve unveiled a plan to “reform” the Muslim faith to bring it into line with the “values of the French Republic.” This, he said, would be done by means of a new “Islamic Foundation” devoted to conducting “revitalizing research” into a form of Islam that “carries the message of peace, tolerance and respect.” The government would create, among other measures, a new forum to: promote dialogue with the Muslim community; improve the training of Muslim preachers; combat radicalization in French prisons; and regulate Muslim schools.
March 3. Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced that the state would double the number of university courses on Islam in an effort to stop foreign governments from financing and influencing the training of French imams. Valls said that he wanted more imams and prison chaplains who have been trained abroad to “undergo more training in France, to speak French fluently and to understand the concept of secularism.” There are currently six universities in France offering courses in Islamic studies and theology. Valls said he wanted to double that number to 12 and that the courses would be free of charge.
March 6. Mohamed Khattabi, the “progressive” imam of the Aicha Mosque in Montpellier, said in a sermon that selfishness is part of “the nature of women.” Khattabi — a Moroccan-Canadian who has lived in France for more than 20 years, and who claims to be a “promoter of an Islam within French society, of coexistence” — said:
“No matter how much good you bestow upon a woman, she will deny it. Her selfishness drives her to deny it. This holds true for all women, whether Western, Arab, Muslim, Jewish, or Christian. This is the nature of women.
“If a woman overcomes her nature and acknowledges [the truth] … Allah grants her a higher place in paradise. But if she succumbs to her nature, and refuses to acknowledge the man’s rights — or rather, the goodness that man bestows upon her — she is destined to go to [hell]…”
March 8. Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that as many as 10,000 Europeans could be waging jihad in Iraq and Syria by the end of 2015:
“There are 3,000 Europeans in Iraq and Syria today. When you do a projection for the months to come, there could be 5,000 before summer and 10,000 before the end of the year. Do you realize the threat this represents?”
March 16. The Interior Ministry blocked five Islamist websites that, it said, were promoting terrorism. The sites included one belonging to al-Hayat Media Center, the propaganda wing of the Islamic State. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said: “I make a distinction between freedom of expression and the spread of messages that serve to glorify terrorism. These hate messages are a crime.” But the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, Nils Muižnieks, criticized the move because it was carried out without judicial oversight: “Limiting human rights to fight against terrorism is a serious mistake and an inefficient measure that can even help the terrorists’ cause.”
March 17. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve revealed that the government has stopped paying welfare benefits to 290 French jihadists fighting with the Islamic State. He said that the agencies responsible for distributing welfare payments were being notified as soon as it was confirmed that a French citizen had left the country to fight abroad.
March 19. Prime Minister Manuel Valls unveiled a new bill that would allow intelligence services to monitor and collect the email and telephone communications of anyone suspected of being a terrorist. “These are legal tools, but not tools of exception, nor of generalized surveillance of citizens,” he said. “There will not be a French Patriot Act,” he said, referring to American legislation bearing the same name. “There cannot be a lawless zone in the digital space. Often we cannot predict the threat, the services must have the power to react quickly.”
April 4. The rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, called for the number of mosques in France to be doubled over the next two years. Speaking at a gathering of French Islamic organizations in the Paris suburb of Le Bourget, Boubakeur said that 2,200 mosques are “not enough” for the “seven million Muslims living in France.” He demanded that unused churches be converted into mosques.
April 7. The Secretary of State for State Reform, Thierry Mandon, claimed that the lack of “decent” places of worship for French Muslims was partly to blame for some of them turning to radical Islam. He said:
“There are not enough mosques in France. There are still too many cities where the Muslim faith is practiced in conditions that are not decent. We are forced to recognize that sometimes the Muslim places of worship are not satisfactory. If they are decent, open rather than underground or hidden, it will be better.”
April 8. Hackers claiming to belong to the Islamic State attacked TV5Monde, a French television network, and knocked it off the air globally. The network broadcasts in more than 200 countries. “We are no longer able to broadcast any of our channels. Our websites and social media sites are no longer under our control and are all displaying claims of responsibility by Islamic State,” the broadcaster’s director general, Yves Bigot, said. The hackers accused President François Hollande of having committed “an unforgivable mistake” by joining a US-led military coalition carrying out air strikes against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria.
April 13. Prime Minister Manuel Valls revealed that more than 1,550 French citizens or residents are involved in terrorist networks in Syria and Iraq. The figures have almost tripled since January 2014.
April 13. An opinion poll produced for Atlanticofound that nearly two-thirds (63%) of French citizens were in favor of restricting civil liberties in order to combat terrorism. Only 33% said they were opposed to having their freedoms reduced, although this number increased significantly among younger respondents.
April 15. A 21-year-old Muslim destroyed more than 200 gravestones at a Catholic cemetery in Saint-Roch de Castres, a town near Toulouse. Police sent the man to the hospital because he was in a “delusional state and unable to communicate.”
April 22. French police arrested Sid Ahmed Ghlam, a 24-year-old Algerian computer science student suspected of planning an attack on Christian churches in Villejuif, a suburb south of Paris. He was arrested after apparently shooting himself by accident. Police found three Kalashnikov assault rifles, handguns, ammunition and bulletproof vests, as well as documents linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, in his car and home. Police said Ghlam had expressed a desire to join the Islamic State in Syria.
April 21. A study by the Observatory of Religion in the Workplace (Observatoire du fait religieux en entreprise, OFRE) and the Randstad Institute found that 23% of the managers in France were regularly confronting religious problems at work, up from 12% in 2014. OFRE President Lionel Honoré said religious tension had increased since January because Muslims who feel stigmatized by the jihadist attacks in Paris were becoming more forceful in asserting their beliefs.