Afterwards, [President] Mitterrand and I were alone, and I said to him: "next time we should also invite a Muslim. Islam is undoubtedly the second largest religion in France."
--"You're right," he replied, "but whom? They have no leader (chef).... And then [we would have to invite] the Armenians, the Orthodox-Greek, Russian and who knows what else--we'd never see the end of it."
--"This salon is vast," I told him.... "A Muslim in the Elysee Palace for next New Year's reception, together with [the Cardinal, the Grand Rabbi and the head of the Protestant Federation], that would be a nice symbol."
Former Minister of the Interior Pierre Joxe recalling a conversation from January 1985. (1)
We must determine the practical terms of our relationship, which requires a legitimate interlocutor. ... The state will not impose its own choice, it will simply grant recognition to those who are proposed [by Muslim organizations]. ... I am counting on you all to help me lay the foundations for normal relations between the state and the Islam of France. Rest assured in any case that there is room for Islam at the table of the Republic.
Former Minister of the Interior Jean-Pierre Chevenement in November 1997. (2)
The creation of a representative council for observant Muslims--the Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman--is a landmark accomplishment of Fifth Republic France. It is a strong reaffirmation of the republican framework in which the representatives of organized religion are expected to operate in lay France. But it is also an uncharacteristic official acknowledgment of contemporary religious diversity. How did a country whose political system has been notoriously allergic to organized religion decide to assemble and embed Muslim leaders within a state-sponsored institution? Some clues are contained in the remarks above, which hint at the mindset of the ministers in charge of religious affairs. These statements, made by two key actors in the French government's efforts to integrate Islam into French state-church relations, can be seen as rhetorical bookends of a policy process aiming to bring France's Muslim population closer to the state. Over a nearly fifteen-year period, politicians of distinct party traditions drew on competing models of state-society relations to make this politically feasible.
Each of the ministers' above statements preceded a major policy initiative on Islam. In 1989, Pierre Joxe--minister of the interior at the time launched the short-lived Council for Reflection on Islam in France (CORIF); in 1999, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, minister of the interior from 1997 to 2000, began to lay the foundations for the French Council of the Muslim Religion (CFCM). What the government's post-1989 initiatives have in common was a desire to engage in a consultation with representatives of Islam in France, and they shared an indirect objective: the social integration of the growing population of North African origin. But the emphasis on how best to achieve this integration underwent a great deal of change in the intervening decade. This article reconstructs the process by which recent governments of the secular French Republic have gradually (and ironically) made the difficult decision to resort to religion policy as a tool for integrating the population of Arab-Muslim origin. This entailed a change in the way that representatives of the French state perceived the challenge of the Muslim presence during the closing decades of the twentieth century.
To take up the metaphors provided by Joxe and Chevenement, the corresponding shift occurred from an invitation to organized Islam to occupy a passive presence in the "salon" towards the more active participation at the "table of the Republic." This resulted in part from evolving policy goals to create an Islam "of" France rather than simply tolerate the existence of Islam "in" …