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Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship

0 Comments 🕔25.Nov 2014

There are few topics that have been as extensively examined in academic literature as the French ‘Muslim question’. Especially since the 1990s, scholars from France and overseas have engaged in attempts to make sense of the uneasy relationship between France and its Muslim population (Kepel 1994; Gaspard and Khosrokhavar 1995; Kaltenbach and Tribalat 2002; Scott 2007; Bowen 2011), and the interest does not seem to be ceasing (Hajjat and Mohammed 2013; Fernando 2014). With the ever-growing numbers of publications, one does not often find a book that breaks new ground on the issue. While Jennifer Fredette’s Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship (2014) does not provide any surprises to readers familiar with the topic, it is nonetheless an important contribution to scholarship on French Muslims and contemporary French citizenship. This is the case for two reasons: First, instead of focusing either on elite discourses or on the practices of French Muslims, Fredette examines the interaction between elite “frames” and the ways that Muslims renegotiate them. Second, rather than looking at a single issue, Fredette analyzes the construction of French citizenship through three different policy fields: education, employment, and housing. The result is a nuanced picture of contemporary discourses constructing French Muslims and an engaging analysis of the difficulties that these individuals face in different spheres of public life.

The specific focus of the book is on the construction of French Muslims as “undeserving citizens.” Fredette’s aim is to contrast homogenizing and prejudicial elite discourses with the lived diversity of French Muslims’ identities, ambitions, and everyday struggles. In so doing, her approach is thoroughly interpretivist. By employing methodological triangulation – frame analysis, interviews, participant observation, etc. – she examines the various meaning-making processes at work in the construction of Republican citizenship. While the introductory chapter presents these epistemological and methodological starting points (p. 10–15), theoretically oriented readers and especially those interested in discourse or frame analysis will be disappointed to discover that Fredette’s theoretico-methodological scaffolding remains underdeveloped. The author does not define the key concepts of “frame” and “discourse,” but instead seems to use them almost interchangeably. Considering the various approaches that exist to studying discourses and frames (or sometimes both), this ambiguity is rather unsettling. Yet whatever analytical strand Fredette draws on, she adopts an explicitly critical perspective. Building on Lukes’s three-dimensional approach to power, she draws attention to the fact that “power is operating in subtle ways, influencing not just values and beliefs, but also the rules of the game […]” (p. 13).

When it comes to the operation of power, Fredette’s argument is clear: the citizenship of French Muslims is being undercut. Whether this is done through social indignities, the violation of rights, or the erasure of rights, Fredette argues that elite discourse plays a pivotal role in the process (p. 25). For readers who might be unfamiliar with the French context, Fredette’s overview of the French elite triad (politicians, the media, and intellectuals) and of the construction of a unified elite discourse is highly illuminating. Moreover, in differentiating between the “facial neutrality of the law” and the prejudices that French Muslims often encounter in practice, Fredette’s analysis shows that formal rights are not sufficient in guaranteeing equal citizenship and that they might, on the contrary, even contribute to entrenching inequalities. Examining the construction of French Muslims as “undeserving citizens” sheds light on this process – it shows how politically equal citizens can become socially scorned (p. 42).

After examining the elite construction of French Muslims in Chapter 2, Fredette directs her attention to the ways that French Muslims have articulated their own citizenship. From some who demand neutrality to others who pursue recognition, Chapter 3 shows that the repertoires of French Muslims are as diverse as the population itself. Again, Fredette offers an excellent discussion of the limits of rights-based discourse. By contrasting the French context with that of the United States, Fredette identifies some of the reasons why French Muslims’ and their advocates’ rights claims have not succeeded in sparking social change (p. 71–76).

Fredette has chosen to anchor her analysis in three policy fields: education, employment, and housing. Her intriguing analysis adds empirical evidence to what we already know about the discrimination that French Muslims experience in these sectors. Chapter 4 focuses on education. After shedding light on the peculiarities of the French education system, Fredette shows that elite discussions of Muslims and education tend to focus almost solely on the issue of the wearing of the Islamic headscarf. Muslims, on the other hand, have various concerns ranging from dissatisfaction with school counselors to experiences of multiple and intersecting discriminations. Chapter 5 looks at employment by contrasting elite discourses with those of Muslims. Fredette empirically illustrates how many of the inequalities and difficulties existing in the field of education are exacerbated in the field of employment. Her interviews reveal that Muslims commonly experience not only discrimination on the part of employers, but also general wariness from coworkers. Chapter 6 is concerned with issues related to housing. Fredette argues that these are inseparable from the social construction of the banlieues (disadvantaged immigrant neighborhoods), and demonstrates that while French elites almost univocally portray the banlieues as dangerous, the meanings that Muslims attach to these places are more subtle and varied.

In Chapter 7, the empirical analysis is connected to four models of citizenship: racial and religious, “cultural,” difference-blind abstract republicanism, and critical republicanism (p. 152). Fredette summarizes her findings by stating that contemporary French elite discourses build mostly on difference-blind abstract republicanism. However, French Muslims’ discourses are not as far from elite articulations as one might expect. While not all of them embrace difference-blind abstract republicanism, Fredette’s conclusion is clear: “[A]ll of the Muslims interviewed for this study articulated visions of citizenship that are premised on the celebrated French values of freedom, equality, and fraternity” (p. 159). Although the meanings that French Muslims attach to these values are sometimes different from those formulated by the elite, Fredette’s analysis shows that Muslims are not rejecting the ideals that French citizenship is built upon. Rather, they are fighting to combat discrimination and to be accepted – and respected – as French and Muslim (p. 160).

The strengths of this book are linked to its weaknesses. To begin with, Fredette’s arguments emerge from the contrasting of elite discourse with the experiences of Muslim respondents. It is through this comparison that the author succeeds in painting a subtle picture of the construction of French citizenship. However, it is not always obvious whether her analysis speaks to the interactions between these frames. Moreover, the extent to which French elites might renegotiate – and not simply reject – Muslim “frames” is left relatively unexplored. Moving on to the empirical cases, Fredette’s discussion of education, employment, and housing shows that her argument has wide applicability. However, in focusing on these policy fields, Fredette has also chosen not to look in detail at the so-called “veil affairs.” Considering the amount of literature that already exists on these controversies, her choice is understandable. Yet the issue of the Islamic headscarf continues to pop up throughout the book and thus its importance as an overarching “nodal point” cannot easily be overlooked. (The cover of the book – a photograph of a veiled woman – is itself revealing of this fact.) Although Fredette clearly states that not all Muslims are equally affected by the undercutting of citizenship, she fails to sufficiently stress that elite discourses often specifically target Muslim women who wear the hijab. Therefore it can be argued that the headscarf controversies are not simply something that takes attention away from other issues, but an important structuring factor in all of the discourses under study.

Overall, however, Constructing Muslims in France is very convincing, easily accessible, and thoroughly enjoyable. It is full of empirical examples that bring the French context alive for readers across the globe. This book will be of great interest to political scientists, sociologists, and legal scholars alike, as well as to anyone interested in issues of minority rights and discrimination.

Reviewed by Kaisa Vuoristo, Université de Montréal & École Normale Supérieure de Cachan

Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship
by Jennifer Fredette
Temple University Press
Paperback / 228 pages / 2014
ISBN: 978-1439910290


Bowen, John R. 2011. Can Islam be French?: Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Fernando, Mayanthi L. 2014. The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Gaspard, F., and F. Khosrokhavar. 1995. Le foulard et la République. Paris: La Découverte.
Hajjat, A., and M. Mohammed. 2013. Islamophobie: comment les élites françaises fabriquent le « problème musulman». Paris: La Découverte.
Kaltenbach, J.-H., and M. Tribalat. 2002. La République et l’islam: entre crainte et aveuglement. Paris: Gallimard.
Kepel, Gilles. 1994. A l’ouest d’Allah. Paris: Seuil.
Scott, Joan Wallach. 2007. The Politics of the Veil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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