Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The quiet flight of Muslims from France

Before elections in April, President Emmanuel Macron's top three rivals are all running anti-immigrant campaigns that fan fears of a nation facing a civilisational threat by invading non-Europeans

By Norimitsu Onishi and Aida Alami
Published: Feb 14, 2022

The quiet flight of Muslims from FranceThe Couronnes metro station in a neighborhood known for a big Muslim community, in Paris, Jan. 25, 2022. All the talk of France’s presidential election campaign is about immigration, but it is the quiet flight of French Muslims from France that points to a deeper crisis for the country. (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)

PARIS — France’s wounded psyche is the invisible character in every one of Sabri Louatah’s novels and the hit television series he wrote. He speaks of his “sensual, physical, visceral love” for the French language and of his attachment to his hometown in southeastern France, bathed in its distinctive light. He closely monitors the campaign for the upcoming presidential elections.

But Louatah does all that from Philadelphia, the city that he began considering home after the 2015 attacks in France by Islamic extremists, which killed scores of people and deeply traumatized the country. As sentiments hardened against all French Muslims, he no longer felt safe there. One day, he was spat on and called “dirty Arab.”

“It’s really the 2015 attacks that made me leave because I understood they were not going to forgive us,” said Louatah, 38, the grandson of Muslim immigrants from Algeria. “When you live in a big Democratic city on the East Coast, you’re more at peace than in Paris, where you’re deep in the cauldron.”

Before elections in April, President Emmanuel Macron’s top three rivals — who are expected to account for nearly 50% of the vote, according to polls — are all running anti-immigrant campaigns that fan fears of a nation facing a civilizational threat by invading non-Europeans. The issue is top of their agenda, even though France’s actual immigration lags behind that of most other European countries.

The problem barely discussed is emigration. For years, France has lost highly educated professionals seeking greater dynamism and opportunity elsewhere. But among them, according to academic researchers, is a growing number of French Muslims who say that discrimination was a strong push factor and that they felt compelled to leave by a glass ceiling of prejudice, nagging questions about their security and a feeling of not belonging.

The outflow has gone unremarked upon by politicians and the news media even as researchers say it shows France’s failure to provide a path for advancement for even the most successful of its largest minority group, a “brain drain” of those who could have served as models of integration.

“These people end up contributing to the economy of Canada or Britain,” said Olivier Esteves, a professor at the University of Lille’s center on political science, public law and sociology, which surveyed 900 French Muslim émigrés and conducted in-depth interviews with 130 of them. “France is really shooting itself in the foot.”

French Muslims, estimated at 10% of the population, occupy a strangely outsize place in the campaign — even if their actual voices are seldom heard. It is not only an indication of the lingering wounds inflicted by the attacks of 2015 and 2016, which killed hundreds, but also of France’s long struggle over identity issues and its unresolved relationship with its former colonies.

They are being linked to crime or other social ills through dog-whistle expressions like “zones of non-France,” used by Valérie Pécresse, the center-right candidate now tied with the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, for second place behind Macron. They are singled out for condemnation by far-right television pundit and candidate Éric Zemmour, who has said that employers have the right to deny jobs to Black and Arab people.

The tenor of the race has stoked dread as they watch it from abroad, say Louatah and others who have left, speaking with a mix of anger and resignation of their home country, where they still have family and other strong ties.

The places he and others have settled, including Britain and the United States, are not paradises free of discrimination for Muslims or other minority groups, but those interviewed said they nevertheless felt greater opportunity and acceptance there. It was outside France that, for the first time, the simple fact that they are French was not questioned, some said.

“It’s only abroad that I’m French,” said Amar Mekrous, 46, who was raised in a Paris suburb by his immigrant parents. “I’m French; I’m married to a Frenchwoman; I speak French; I live French; I love French food and culture. But in my own country, I’m not French.”

Finding the suspicion surrounding French Muslims oppressive after the 2015 attacks, Mekrous settled with his wife and three children in Leicester, England.

In 2016, he created a Facebook group for French Muslims in Britain, which now has 2,500 members. Newcomers to Britain surged before Brexit, he said, adding that they were mostly young families and single mothers who found it difficult to find jobs in France because they wore the Muslim veil.

Only recently have academic researchers begun to form snapshots of French Muslims who have left. They include the research project into the emigration of French Muslims led by academics affiliated with the University of Lille, a leading French university, and the National Center for Scientific Research, the French government’s main research institution.

Elyes Saafi, 37, a marketing executive at the London operations of StoneX, an American financial firm, grew up in Remiremont, a town in eastern France, where his parents settled after arriving from Tunisia in the 1970s. His father operated a spinning machine at a textile factory.

Like his own parents, Saafi ended up making a new life in a new country. In London, he met his wife, Mathilde, who is French, and found an easygoing diversity unimaginable in France.

“At corporate dinners, there might be a vegetarian buffet or a halal buffet, but everybody mingles,” he said. “The CEO shows up, and he has a turban on his head, and he mixes with his employees.”

The Saafis miss France, but they decided not to return partly because of worries about their 2-year-old son.

“In Britain, I’m not worried about raising an Arab child,” Mathilde Saafi said.

In 2020, anti-Muslim acts in France rose 52% over the previous year, according to official complaints gathered by the government’s National Human Rights Commission. Incidents have risen in the past decade, rising sharply in 2015. A rare official investigation in 2017 found that young men perceived as Arab or Black were 20 times more likely to have their identities checked by police.

In the workplace, job candidates with an Arab name had a 32% less chance of being called for an interview, according to a government report released in November.

Louatah, the writer in Philadelphia, whose French wife is an economist and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, said he hoped to return one day to the country that fills his novels. When the television series based on his work, “The Savages,” was broadcast in 2019, it became an immediate hit for the company behind it, Canal Plus — and an unusual one, imagining France for the first time led by a president of North African descent.

But two years later, Louatah has come to view his series as an “anomaly.” He began writing the second season, with a storyline focusing on police violence, one of the most sensitive themes in France. Ultimately, “The Savages” was not renewed for reasons that he said were never made clear to him. A spokesperson for Canal Plus said the series had been planned for only one season.

In Philadelphia, he is writing a new novel that deals with exile from a country that is never named.

©2019 New York Times News Service