On Tuesday, French officials gathered to formally celebrate and grant citizenship to Lassana Bathily, an African Muslim immigrant who defied odds — and stereotypes — to save several lives during the terrorist attacks that rocked Paris earlier this month. His sudden rise to fame, however, also shines an uncomfortable spotlight on the struggles that millions of African Muslim immigrants in France face every day.
According to NBC News, dignitaries and government officials convened this week to extend a formal thank you to Bathily, the so-called “hero of the supermarket,” who has achieved widespread acclaim for his brave actions during the recent jihadist attacks in France. When ISIS-linked religious extremist Amedy Coulibaly stormed into a kosher supermarket on January 9 and began opening fire and taking hostages, 24-year-old Bathily successfully shepherded several frightened customers into a cold storage room and closed the door, shielding them from the attacker and saving many lives.
Bathily, who is originally from Mali, was reportedly marched into Tuesday’s ceremony alongside French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, before French President François Hollande handed him a letter, a medal, and a book on French nationality. The gathering was convened in part to fast-track Bathily’s route to citizenship: the shop clerk has lived in France for about nine years, but only reportedly filed for his citizenship papers — which often take years to accrue — last summer.
After some kind words were said on his behalf, Bathily stepped up to the microphone.
“People tell me I am a hero” he said. “I am not a hero. I am trying to stay myself.”
“I am very happy,” he added. “Long live liberty! Long live friendship! Long live solidarity! Long live France!”
But Bathily’s newfound popularity, while inspiring, belies the difficult and often harrowing daily experience of North and West African Muslim immigrants in France. Until he was granted citizenship on Tuesday, Bathily was one of millions of African immigrants currently trying to make a home in the country. Members of the group — which are overwhelmingly Muslim and make up roughly 43 percent of French immigrants overall — are sometimes referred to as “Maghrebis,” because so many hail from Maghreb countries such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. They, like most immigrant populations, face significantly more obstacles than the average citizen: the tenuous legal status of immigrants usually relegates them to lower-income jobs, which, in turn, means they often gather in lower-income neighborhoods — typically run-down suburbs on the outskirts of French cities (note: in France, unlike in the United States, wealthier citizens tend to live in the inner-city, whereas poorer communities often reside in far-flung suburbs).
These low-income areas are, unsurprisingly, havens for crime, and France is well-known for large-scale violent clashes between police and residents of the industrial suburbs. The cumulative effect of this de-facto ghettoizing is the creation of deep-seated anti-immigrant sentiment in France: several polls over the past 10 years have shown growing anti-immigrant resentment among French citizens, and France’s far-right National Front party, which is blatantly anti-immigrant, finally placed first in the country’s national elections last May.
But while the immigrant experience is hard enough on its own, Muslim immigrants like Bathily are disproportionately subject to discrimination at the hands of French authorities. From a purely cultural perspective, France’s concept of laïcité, or a strict prohibition against religious expressions in the public sphere, has proven highly restrictive for many Muslims. A French law passed in 2004 banned wearing “conspicuous religious symbols” in public, but the rule is widely believed to have been created to crack down on headscarves worn by thousands of Muslim women. Similarly, in 2011, President Nicolas Sarkozy introduced and successfully ushered into law a ban on niqabs, or full-face coverings also worn by many Muslim women. (The controversial rule, seen as inherently discriminatory, was later upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in July of last year) Fast forward to today, when anti-Islam sentiment is seeing something of a revival in French intellectual circles, spurred in part by xenophobic fears surrounding the influx of African Muslims into the country.
This discrimination — and the fear that fuels it — also directly impacts the economic situation of Muslim immigrants. According to a recent study conducted by the London School of Economics, French businesses are far less likely to call back a Muslim immigrant from Senegal for an interview than a Christian immigrant from the same country — this just from reading their names and CVs. Consequently, since a Muslim is 2.5 times less likely to get a callback for an interview, there is a significant income gap between Muslim immigrant households in France compared to other immigrant homes.
Diminished income, of course, makes it all the more difficult to pay the mountain of expensive paperwork fees required for someone to attain French citizenship. When this is compounded by ballooning mistrust between local police and Muslims — especially since the group has long been subject to random ID checks in numbers far higher than, say, secular Western immigrants — the path to citizenship for many people like Bathily can seem at best arduous, if not impossible.
Given this context, putting Bathily on the fast-track to French citizenship is undoubtedly a smart PR move. As French citizens continue to reel from the Charlie Hebdo shootings, anti-Muslim sentiment has spiked even higher throughout the country. The National Observatory Against Islamophobia has recorded 116 anti-Muslim incidents in France since the terrorist killings, including instances where mosques and Muslim community centers have been bombed, shot at, or vandalized. Thus, by granting Bathily citizenship and lifting him up as the hero that he is, the government stands to ease tensions between Muslim immigrants and the rest of France.