The constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice religion. The president and other government officials again condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts, and the government continued to deploy 7,000 security forces to protect sensitive sites, including religious ones. In June the government thwarted an attempted extremist plot to attack Muslims. In April authorities expelled an Algerian imam because of his radical preaching in Marseille. The government denied an Algerian Muslim woman citizenship after she refused to shake the hands of male officials. The government announced a 2018-2020 action plan to combat hatred, including anti-Semitism, and a nationwide consultation process with the Muslim community to reform the organization and funding of Islam within France. In July the interior minister announced expansion of a “precomplaint” system designed to facilitate reporting of crimes, to include anti-Semitic acts. The government continued to enforce a ban on full-face coverings in public and the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools. President Emmanuel Macron stated his intent to “fight against Salafism and extremism,” which he described as “a problem in our country.” In May the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism said the government treated Muslims as a “suspect community” through the application of counterterrorism laws and called the government closure of mosques a restriction on religious freedom.
Religiously motivated crimes and other incidents against Jews and Muslims occurred, including killings or attempted killings, beatings, threats, hate speech, discrimination, and vandalism. The government reported 1,063 anti-Christian incidents, compared with 1,038 in 2017, most of which involved vandalism or other acts against property. According to government statistics, there were 100 crimes targeting Muslims, including an attack against Muslim worshippers outside a mosque, a 17 percent decrease compared with the 121 in 2017. The government also reported an additional 51 acts against Muslim places of worship or cemeteries. There were 541 anti-Semitic crimes, consisting of physical attacks, threats, and vandalism, an increase of 74 percent compared with the 311 incidents recorded in 2017. Anti-Semitic incidents included the killing of a Holocaust survivor, an acid attack against a rabbi’s baby, and threatening letters against Jewish groups citing the killing of the Holocaust survivor. Violent anti-Semitic crimes totaled 81, compared with 97 in 2017. A student leader at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) generated considerable debate after wearing a hijab on national television. According to a poll conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) in February, 43 percent of respondents thought Islam was not compatible with the values of the republic.
The U.S. embassy, consulates general, and American Presence Posts (APPs) discussed religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in combating violent extremism, and cooperation on these issues with officials at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and with the country’s Ambassador-at-Large for Human Rights and Holocaust Issues. The Ambassador, embassy, consulate, and APP officials met regularly with religious communities and their leaders throughout the country to discuss religious freedom concerns and encourage interfaith cooperation and tolerance. The embassy sponsored projects and events to combat religious discrimination and advance tolerance. The embassy funded a visit to the United States for four nongovernmental organization (NGO) directors on an exchange program that included themes of interfaith cooperation and religious tolerance. It also sponsored the participation of three imams at a conference in Rabat focused on building interfaith relationships.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 67.4 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the most recent study by the National Institute for Demographic and Economic Studies, conducted in 2008 and published in 2010, 45 percent of respondents aged 18-50 reported no religious affiliation, while 43 percent identified as Roman Catholic, 8 percent as Muslim, 2 percent as Protestant, and the remaining 2 percent as Orthodox Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or other.
A poll conducted in March by the private firm Opinionway found 41 percent of respondents older than 18 years identify as Catholic, 8 percent Muslim, 3 percent Protestant, 1 percent Buddhist, and 1 percent Jewish; 43 percent said they have no religious affiliation.
According to a survey conducted in March by the Catholic Institute of Paris and St. Mary’s Catholic University in the United Kingdom, 64 percent of young people aged 16-29 in France declared themselves without a religion compared with 23 percent who said they were Catholic and 10 percent who said they were Muslim.
The MOI estimates 8-10 percent of the population is Muslim. The Muslim population consists primarily of immigrants from former French colonies in North and sub-Saharan Africa and their descendants. According to a Pew Research Center study published in November 2017, Muslims number 5.72 million, 8.8 percent of the total population.
According to a 2017 Ipsos study published in Reforme, a Protestant online news daily, there are an estimated 600,000 Lutheran, 600,000 evangelical, and 800,000 nondenominational members in the Protestant community. Many evangelical churches primarily serve African and Caribbean immigrants.
A 2016 report by Berman Jewish Data Bank estimated there are 460,000-700,000 Jews, depending on the criteria chosen. According to the study, there are more Sephardic than Ashkenazi Jews.
The Buddhist Union of France estimates there are one million Buddhists, mainly Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants and their descendants. Other religious groups estimate their numbers as follows: Jehovah’s Witnesses, 120,000; Orthodox Christians, most of whom are associated with the Greek or Russian Orthodox Churches, 80,000-100,000; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 66,000; Church of Scientology, 45,000; and Sikhs, 30,000.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the latest government estimates available, the MOI reported registered crimes targeting Muslims (threats or violence) totaled 100, down from 121 in 2017; there were an additional 45 acts of vandalism against Muslim places of worship and six acts of desecration against Muslim cemeteries. The reported anti-Semitic crimes (threats or violence) increased to 541, compared with 311 in the previous year. Despite an overall increase resulting from a significant rise in threats, violent acts against Jews fell from 97 to 81. Anti-Semitic threats rose from 214 in 2017 to 358, and acts of vandalism totaled 102. The government also reported 1,063 anti-Christian incidents, most of which involved vandalism or other acts against property, compared with 1,038 in 2017. The government did not provide a detailed breakdown of anti-Muslim or anti-Christian acts registered during the year.
On March 23, Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll, aged 85, was found dead in her Paris apartment. An autopsy revealed she had been stabbed at least 11 times before being burned in a fire, which was ruled to be arson. Authorities arrested two individuals in connection with the killing and placed them in pretrial detention. The Paris prosecutor’s office was investigating the killing as a hate crime. After the incident, thousands of people participated in a “white march,” a silent gathering to commemorate the victim, in Paris. On May 27, President Macron stated Knoll was “murdered because she was Jewish.”
In February unknown individuals placed acid in the stroller of a rabbi’s baby daughter in Bron. The child suffered burns on her back and legs. According to an ongoing police investigation, anti-Semitic motives were involved.
In March police arrested four teens suspected of beating a Jewish boy with a stick and taking his kippah outside a synagogue north of Paris. The suspects reportedly called the boy and his siblings “dirty Jews.”
On August 24, a man attacked two male worshippers with a bicycle chain as they were leaving a mosque in the town of Lens, near Calais. The Mayor of Lens, Sylvain Robert, condemned the attack in a statement. According to the mayor, during his court hearing, the accused cited “ideological and racist” justifications for his act. On September 26, the Lens Court sentenced the accused to an 11-month prison sentence for aggravated assault, referencing the racist nature of the attack.
In July a psychiatric evaluation of Kobili Traore, charged with killing his 65-year-old Jewish neighbor, Sarah Halimi, in 2017, determined Traore was not responsible for his actions and therefore unable to stand trial. Authorities were planning to conduct a third psychiatric evaluation of Traore, who remained incarcerated at year’s end. On February 27, reversing a previous decision, the judge presiding over the case added the charge of anti-Semitism as a motive for the crime. The magistrate made this decision after hearing testimony from Traore. In a statement, CRIF hailed the judge’s decision and expressed “satisfaction” and “relief.”
Authorities scheduled a new trial for March 2019 in Paris Criminal Court for Abdelkader Merah on the charge of complicity in the killing by his brother, Mohammed Merah, of seven persons outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. In November 2017, prosecutors appealed the 2017 acquittal of Abdelkader Merah on the complicity charge; the court had convicted him on the lesser charge of criminal terrorist conspiracy.
By year’s end authorities had not set a date for the trial of five individuals arrested in November 2017 and charged with carrying out an attack on a Jewish family in Livry Gargan earlier that year.
On July 6, a court in Val-de-Marne sentenced three young men who carried out a rape and robbery of a Jewish couple in the Paris suburb of Creteil in 2014. Abdou Salam Koita and Ladje Haidara, who committed the rape, were present in court. Houssame Hatri, who made anti-Semitic slurs during the attack, remained at large and was convicted in absentia. The three, who were sentenced to eight, 13, and 16 years in prison, respectively, bound and gagged their victims before carrying out the rape and stealing jewelry and bank cards. “Jews do not put money in the bank,” one of them reportedly said. During the attack Hatri also reportedly said that the attack was “for my brothers in Palestine” before suggesting the perpetrators should “gas” their victims. Two accomplices received sentences of five and six years in jail.
On June 29, the Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into anti-Semitic letters received by at least six Jewish associations, including CRIF. The letters, signed by “The Black Hand,” were posted June 18 and referred to the killing of Mireille Knoll, according to press reports. The letters read in part, “Dear Jews, you bitterly mourn the death of an old Jew murdered for her money. We think you pay little for the number of crimes you commit every day. Enjoy it, because the day of punishment will come.”
In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 3,869 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of France responded to the online survey. Twenty-two percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 27 percent reported being harassed over the same period. One-fifth of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 93 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.
The annual report of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, an advisory body to the prime minister, released in March, included the results of a poll conducted in November 2017 by the Ipsos Institute, a research and consulting company, involving face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,003 residents over the age of 18. According to the poll, 38.2 percent of the respondents (2 percent fewer than in 2016) believed Jews “have a particular relationship with money,” and 19.7 percent thought Jews had too much power in the country. The same poll found 29.5 percent of respondents had a negative image of Islam and 43.9 percent (2.1 percent fewer than in the previous year) of them considered it a threat to national identity. The report also cited what it said was persistent societal rejection of Islamic religious practices, such as of prayer and women wearing a veil. According to the report, there was a decrease in anti-Semitic and racist acts compared with 2016, “despite a general context favorable to the rejection of the other, notably marked by terrorism, the arrival of migrants, unemployment, the importance of security issues reported in the media, and the rise in populism in Europe.”
In May Maryam Pougetoux, aged 19, the leader of the Sorbonne chapter of the French National Students’ Union, set off a debate by wearing a hijab on national television. Laurent Bouvet, a secularist and member of Le Printemps Republicain (Repulican Spring), a group created to defend secularism, stated in a Twitter post, “We aren’t hunting anyone but merely pointing to the inconsistency” of Pougetoux wearing a hijab, arguing it contradicted her support for abortion rights and other “feminist principles.” Then-Interior Minister Collomb called her appearance “shocking,” while Marlene Schiappa, the junior minister for gender equality, said she saw in Pougetoux’s act a “form of promotion of political Islam.” Hijabs are permitted on college campuses.
According to media reports, on June 28, a judge fined a tobacco shop owner in the town of Albi 1,000 euros ($1,100) for refusing goods and services to a Muslim woman who was wearing a jilbab. The woman had come to the merchant’s store to pick up a parcel she had delivered there. The woman’s face was visible when she presented her identity card to the shop owner, and she offered to remove her veil in a setting where no men were present, according to reports. The judge also ordered the shop owner to pay to each of the four women who accompanied the plaintiff to the store 800 euros ($920) for moral damages and 500 euros ($570) for legal fees, as well as 800 euros ($920) in damages each to the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism and the Movement Against Racism and Friendship Between Peoples, and one euro ($1) to the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF).
On Easter Monday (April 2), unidentified individuals vandalized the church of Fenay, near Dijon. According to the parish priest, the attackers broke the door of the sacristy with an ax, then threw down and trampled the consecrated hosts. “This is a deliberate act of desecration,” said the priest, who filed a complaint, according to press reports. The investigation continued at year’s end.
On January 26, unknown individuals painted a large swastika at the entrance to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
On June 17, Strasbourg celebrated the 11th anniversary of its interfaith dialogue initiative, which continued to bring together religious leaders from Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths.
In July, for the second consecutive year, young Christians and Muslims from across the country, Europe, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East participated in a three-day “weekend of friendship” event at the Taize Ecumenical Community in the Department of Saone-et-Loire. The approximately 200 participants addressed a series of questions from the organizers on prayer, religious freedom, and fasting.
In December 80 civil society representatives from 25 countries attended the ninth annual Muslim-Jewish Conference in Paris, exchanging best practices and discussing ways to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic sentiment. The organizers said interfaith dialogue was more important than ever and committed to supporting Jewish and Muslim communities in the country and around the world.
The Council of Christian Churches, composed of 10 representatives from the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches, continued to serve as a forum for dialogue. One observer represented the Anglican Communion on the council. The council met twice in plenary session and twice at the working level.