Posted on February 17, 2022

The Quiet Flight of Muslims From France

Norimitsu Onishi and Aida Alami, New York Times, February 13, 2022

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 Mr. Louatah does all of that from Philadelphia, the city that he began considering home after the 2015 attacks in France by Islamist 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 Mr. 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.”

Ahead of elections in April, President Emmanuel Macron’s top three rivals — who are expected to account for nearly 50 percent 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 percent 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 Mr. Macron. They are singled out for condemnation by the 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 Mr. 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.


Only recently have academic researchers begun to form snapshots of French Muslims who have left. {snip}


Jérémy Mandin, a French researcher involved in the study at the University of Liège in Belgium, said that many young French Muslims had been disillusioned “that they had played by the rules, done everything that was asked of them, and ultimately been unable to lead a desirable life.”


In 2020, anti-Muslim acts in France rose 52 percent 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 the police.

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