A study released over the weekend by the liberal Montaigne Institute may provide one of the best snapshots of an often-overlooked aspect of that tension: what French Muslims themselves think about France's secular laws.
The study, conducted by the polling firm Ifop long before the burkini controversy erupted and first published in Le Journal du Dimanche weekly, found that most of those who identify as Muslim in France fit into three broad categories.
The first, who viewed themselves as secular but also said that Islam plays a major role in their life, made up 46 percent of French citizens who identified as Muslim — they are classified as the "silent majority" in French Muslim life.
Twenty-five percent defined themselves as "proudly Muslim" but still accepted French law, including a "burqa ban" that went into force in 2011 and prohibited the public wearing of the full-face Islamic veil or the full-body burqa, which is rarely seen in the country.
However, 28 percent took a more hard-line view of their faith and its relationship with the French state. The report noted that this group tended to be in favor of wearing the full-face niqab and of polygamy. Notably, its members appeared to be significantly younger than those in the other two groups — almost 50 percent were younger than 25 — and the study's authors noted that this may be a generational effect.
This group was described as "mostly young, low-skilled people with low levels of participation in the labour market" who lived on the outskirts of cities and used their conservative Islamic identity to "revolt" against mainstream French society.
The responses to specific questions showed that a minority of French Muslims favored Islamic traditions over French law. For example, 29 percent said sharia, the Islamic legal and moral code, should be more important than French national law. Meanwhile, 24 percent were in favor of wearing the burqa and the niqab, despite the ban. Notably, in this case as in several others, French Muslim women appeared to be more conservative than men, with 28 percent in favor vs. 20 percent of their male peers.
Sixty percent of French Muslims were found to support the right to wear the hijab headscarf in schools and other public institutions, where the garment has been banned since 2004, though only a third of Muslim women said they wore the hijab or would if they could. Eight out of 10 French Muslims argued that school canteens should offer halal options — a controversial demand in some French towns.
The survey appears to be one of the most comprehensive analyses of Muslim attitudes attempted in France. It was conducted over phone between April 13 and May 23 among 1,029 people ages 15 or older and of the Muslim faith or culture. Other in-depth but smaller-scale studies also have suggested that France's secular laws were facing a backlash from a minority of ultraconservative French Muslims.
The new study may challenge some orthodox thinking about France's Muslim minority. One of the most obvious was simply the size of that minority. In a nod to secularism, the French government doesn't allow state authorities to collect data about people's religious beliefs. This means estimates of the French Muslim population come from private groups — one widely cited study from Pew, for example, pegged the French Muslim population at 4.7 million in 2010, which would be 7.5 percent of France's total population. Other estimates are higher.
The Ifop poll found instead that French Muslims made up only 5.6 percent of the country's population older than 15, though they were younger on average. And despite growing concern about rising numbers of converts to Islam, the poll found that while 7.5 percent of respondents might fit in this category, twice that figure declared themselves non-Muslim despite having at least one Muslim parent.
Also, despite the varying degrees of religious identity, only 29 percent said they made a weekly visit to a mosque and 68 percent said they did not know the French Council of the Muslim Faith, the official body that interacts with the French state to regulate Muslim religious activities. Pushing back against fears of "communalism," 78 percent said they did not vote specifically for Muslim candidates.