After the riots in Parisian suburbs and other French cities by mainly Muslim youths late last year, few international and domestic analysts were touting the soundness of the French government's policies toward its Muslim population.
Critics charged French society with discriminating against people of North African descent and Muslims generally. Such discrimination, they claimed, fueled the riots.
Economically Driven Dissatisfaction
However, the Pew Center's survey data paints a different picture of the violence, putting France's treatment of Muslims in a more favorable light.
"When we look at the riots last year in France, they appear to have been heavily economically driven rather than driven by religion -- by the fact that there are very high rates of unemployment among French Muslims rather than by a zealous desire to convert or extinguish those of other faiths," Jodie Allen, a senior editor at Pew, told RFE/RL.
French Muslims, like Muslims in the rest of Europe, are concerned about unemployment. France has an estimated 5 million Muslims, comprising about 8 percent of the population. By contrast, Muslims make up less than 3 percent of the population in the United Kingdom and Denmark.
French Muslims Ready To Assimilate
More than half of French Muslims are concerned about joblessness, according to survey data collected by Pew in April 2006. But unlike their coreligionists elsewhere, a substantial majority embraces the customs of their countrymen.
"Nearly eight in 10 French Muslims generally say they want to adopt French customs," Allen said. "And this high preference for assimilation certainly compares with that in Spain, although Spanish Muslims tend also to come from North Africa. Only 53 percent of Muslims in Spain say they want to adopt Spanish customs. Only 41 percent in Britain say the same about British customs. And nearly 30 percent in Germany say that. So you can see that in some sense the Muslims in France feel more at home in that country."
As with the Paris riots last fall, the arrests of British-born Muslims in London in connection with an alleged plot to blow up airliners have prompted speculation that ethnic discrimination and joblessness have made Islamic extremism attractive to British Muslims. But French Muslims also face unemployment and prejudice. In fact, 37 percent of French Muslims reported a bad experience due to their race, ethnicity, or religion, compared to 28 percent among British Muslims.
Yet, the worldviews of French and British Muslims are worlds apart, according to Allen.
"When you ask questions about things like [potential] Iranian nuclear weapons -- this is a very striking finding," Allen said. "When we asked whether they favored or opposed Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, fully 71 percent of French Muslims opposed it, whereas only 41 percent of British Muslims opposed it. You just sort of see a different worldview operating there. I think it is partly French culture, and it is also partly the culture that their family lived in North Africa, too, in a more secularized outlook and a feeling that religion can be separated from the state."
Some of the difference between British and French Muslims can be attributed to ethnicity and country of origin. Nearly three-quarters of British Muslims are from South Asia -- Pakistan or India -- while French Muslims are predominantly from Morocco and Algeria, where they were already exposed to French culture.
Historically, French colonial policy emphasized the "civilizing effects" of the French language and culture, while the British Empire allowed its subjects more room to maintain their own cultures, discouraging integration.
In 2004, the French government began expelling foreign clerics that it deemed to be preaching intolerance toward other religions. In addition, would-be imams studying in French mosques must demonstrate their proficiency in French.
Few French Muslims perceive a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in French society. Some 72 percent of those surveyed see no conflict, compared with only 49 percent in Great Britain.
Perhaps it is not coincidental then that the broader French public -- some 74 percent -- also sees no conflict, while only 35 percent of the British public agrees with this sentiment.