France is not a Muslim country. In fact, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, passed by France’s National Constituent Assembly in 1789, guarantees every French citizen the freedom to practice the religion of his or her choice. It enshrines the essence of “secular natural law” and promises equality and freedom to all men and women. Catholicism, the largest religion, is followed by about 53% of the population of France. A recent report suggests that only some 5% of the Catholics actively practice the religion. Islam comes next with about 7.5% followers (2010). The huge difference between the number of Catholics and number of Muslims can be explained by the fact that about 29% of the French people do not subscribe to any religion at all.
Roman Catholicism was once at the heart of French society and prior to the French Revolution, it was the state religion. Since the revolution, however, French society has grown increasingly secular, heterogeneous, and egalitarian. France is now home to the largest atheist population in the world. The growing influence of Islam is testimony to the inherent diversity of French society. In recent years, however, the growth of Islam in France has been met with increasing distrust and fear. According to a survey by the Gatestone Institute in 2012, 60% of French people think that Islam has become “too visible and influential” in the country and over 40% believe that the increase in the number of Muslim immigrants is a major threat to the secular outlook of French society.
Since 2011 the revival of the L’affaire du voile islamique (the Islamic veil affair) has been a matter of much debate and tension in France. In the early 1990s, there arose a demand to ban all forms of veils (particularly Islamic veils). In 2010, full body coverings such as the burqa and headgear such as the hijabs and niqabs were banned. This caused much outcry and seemed to point towards the latent Islamophobia in French society. The current migrant crisis in Europe is not helping. Despite all these factors, analysts believe that among all the countries of Europe, Muslim migrants are integrated best in France. By 2020, about 8.3% of French population is likely to follow Islam.