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Why resentment is growing between Christians and Muslims in Marseille

January 8, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
The deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo puts a spotlight on the growing tensions between France's Muslim and immigrant communities and a large portion of French society, which is traditionally Catholic. The NewsHour’s Megan Thompson recently visited Marseille, one of the country’s most diverse cities, to report on the root of the conflict and the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in France.

GWEN IFILL: We return now to France.

Yesterday’s attacks, among other things, put a spotlight on the growing tensions between the country’s Muslim and immigrant community and a large portion of French society.

NewsHour’s Megan Thompson got a firsthand account of that divide on a recent reporting trip to the southern the city of Marseille.

MEGAN THOMPSON: This city of more than 850,000 is France’s second largest and one of its most diverse. About 500 miles southeast of Paris and on the Mediterranean, Marseille is home to tens of thousands of immigrants throughout Europe and more recently from North Africa.

By some estimates, the city is now 30 to 40 percent Muslim, one of the highest concentrations of Muslims anywhere in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. Even before yesterday’s attack and even before two other recent attacks in France by Muslim men, tensions in Marseille between Muslims and non-Muslims had been rising.

CLAUDE DE GARAM, France (through interpreter): It’s awfully complicated, all of this with the arrival of the foreigners, who have changed everything in the town of Marseille.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Retired photographer Claude De Garam has lived in Marseille his entire life. He says he’s felt things change over the years.

CLAUDE DE GARAM (through interpreter): Before, everyone knew each other. Even the first immigrants in Marseille, the Italians, Spanish, all of that, it all worked fine, perhaps because it was the same religion. But what came after, it is a lot more complicated, less integrated.

MEGAN THOMPSON: And that, he says, has given rise to uneasiness. Difficult encounters are already occurring.

CLAUDE DE GARAM (through interpreter): The old Marseille are annoyed to have people who come and bother them in their hometown, because we have our ways. And the new arrivals feel not well-accepted. And so you feel their hatred increasing. You can see it in the buses. There are fights, and that didn’t happen before.

MEGAN THOMPSON: We asked if he believed new immigrants are to blame.

CLAUDE DE GARAM (through interpreter): I’m absolutely convinced that the main problems come from this.

NATHALIE BENSILLA, France (through interpreter): There are a lot of verbal insults, the stares, people in the streets looking at me.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Nathalie Bensilla was born in France, the daughter of an Algerian immigrant. She converted to Islam in her early 20s and is now married to an imam. The mother of seven says, once or twice a month, she is ridiculed because she wears a scarf. She also says she’s been excluded from her children’s school field trips and, back in 2012, nearly had a confrontation in a store.

NATHALIE BENSILLA (through interpreter): A woman tore into me, really insulted me. She said, “You have rejected our origin,” because she knew that I’m French because I told her. She really insulted me with all these names. She almost hit me.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Bensilla says she reported the incident to police, but nothing happened. According to one survey taken last spring, about a quarter of the French population had an unfavorable view of Muslims, which was actually much lower than other European countries.

But during our visit to Marseille last month, many Muslims we spoke to told us about what they say is widespread job discrimination, unfair media portrayals of all Muslims as terrorists, and a pattern of hostile remarks.

NATHALIE BENSILLA (through interpreter): It doesn’t bother me. I ignore them. But when you have your kids with you and someone insults you, it’s degrading. And, frankly, when it happens on the street, it’s hard to justify it to the kids. They don’t understand. My son, he says, “When I’m big, I am going to fight these people if they talk to you that way.” And I say you can’t respond to aggression with aggression.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Why do you think that people treat you this way?

NATHALIE BENSILLA (through interpreter): I really — I think it’s fear of the other and also a lack of understanding of our religion. Also, I think that Muslims don’t make enough effort to reach out and to explain the fundamentals of our religion, that there is a lot of respect for others.

MEGAN THOMPSON: We also heard stories about a right-wing politician from Marseille, Stephane Ravier, whose actions as mayor offended some members of the Muslim community. He once interrupted a Muslim wedding because the bride was wearing a veil covering her face, a violation of French law. He explained it to us this way.

STEPHANE RAVIER, Member, French State (through interpreter): We have an identity and we also have laws. So French law forbids anyone to be entirely veiled. So I have only applied the law. There is absolutely no Islamophobic, racist or extremist motivation on my end

MEGAN THOMPSON: Last September, Ravier was elected to the French National Senate, the first time in history when anyone from the far-right National Front party has been elected to the body. The National Front has gained ground in France, as worries about the economy and security have grown.

STEPHANE RAVIER (through interpreter): So I am saying to the Muslims, the French Muslims who want to live their Islam, that they have the right to do so, of course. Our country, secularism, allows them to live their Islam.

MEGAN THOMPSON: But Ravier also insists that, despite France’s separation of church and state, the nation’s long Christian traditions must be respected.

STEPHANE RAVIER (through interpreter): I would like to remind people that France is a Christian country, with an identity, a culture. So I’m telling the French Muslims, don’t forget that, here, it is French soil, and, in France, as it is done around the world, we also have to respect religions and rituals, customs, codes. So there is Islam and there is Islamism, which is growing.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Ravier is also critical of national leaders like French President Francois Hollande for not fully appreciating the threat he says some French Muslims present.

And just yesterday, following the mass shooting, the leader of the National Front party said: “Time is up for denial and hypocrisy. The absolute rejection of Islamic fundamentalism must be proclaimed loudly and clearly.”

STEPHANE RAVIER (through interpreter): Massive immigration is causing Islamization. We can see that there are some extremist elements at the heart. They are very active. And the French authorities are completely frozen because they fear being labeled Islamophobic.

MEGAN THOMPSON: French officials estimate as many as 1,000 French Muslims have left to wage jihad.

STEPHANE RAVIER (through interpreter): There is an obvious radical Islamic drift that is becoming more and more violent. We need to take the necessary measures to match this danger.

MEGAN THOMPSON: There’s still another aspect to all off of this. Many believe relations between Christians and Muslims are further strained because many Muslim immigrants are poor, and during difficult economic times, that leads to resentment about providing for them.

The national unemployment rate in France is now about 10 percent.

STEPHANE RAVIER (through interpreter): The economic situation is extremely serious. We welcome immigrants that have nothing and many of them have no skills. They become the state’s responsibility. We are going to have to house them, provide health care, assist them at all levels.

MEGAN THOMPSON: So what does the future hold for relations between Muslims and Christians in Marseille? There seems to be little optimism.

CLAUDE DE GARAM (through interpreter): I think that we will need a few generations to get used to it. Me, I won’t be here. But my kids, I think they will be experiencing some tough moments.

NATHALIE BENSILLA (through interpreter): It’s getting worse and worse. And, frankly, I don’t think it’s going to get better.

MEGAN THOMPSON: For the NewsHour, I’m Megan Thompson, reporting from Marseille, France.