In February 2020, Emmanuel Macron announced his desire to put an end to the reception of paid imams sent to France by foreign countries – what we call seconded imams –, mainly Algeria, Morocco and Turkey . At the same time, the executive intended to increase the number of imams trained in France. The stated objective: to fight against “Islamist separatism” and the “foreign influences”.
Around 200 imams seconded to France
Friday December 29, 2023, the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, sent a letter to the countries concerned reminding that France would no longer accept seconded imams from January 1, 2024. Those already present will have to change their status before April 1st. If in 2020 France had 300 seconded imams, today there are 200, because most Moroccan imams were supported by French religious associations.
For Francis Messner, specialist in religious law and professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg, this government decision constitutes “a necessary milestone for the strengthening of the French regime of Muslim worship” governed by the law of 1905, “without appealing to foreign states”. Already in 2021, the executive had strengthened control of foreign funding of religions, requiring the associations concerned to declare foreign amounts exceeding €15,300.
“This new law won’t change much”
The executive focuses here on Muslim ministers. Concretely, foreign imams will still be able to officiate in France, but they will no longer be directly attached to their country of origin. “This decision will not change much”estimates Bernard Godard, former civil servant at the Ministry of the Interior, who considers it a “simple administrative change”.
Until now, seconded imams had to return every four years to their country of origin to renew or not their contract in France. Now, explains Bernard Godard, “It is the associations managing places of worship in France which will have to recruit imams on a case-by-case basis and employ them directly”.
A vague status
But the government’s ambitions come up against difficulties in putting it into practice. Starting with the vague status of the imam in France. The problem, underlines Francis Messner, is that this status is not the subject of any centralized national recognition: “In France, in Christian and Jewish religions, the statutes very precisely set the specifications of religious leaders, which is not the case for Muslim religion, which is very fragmented in the country. »
In 2021, the French Council of Muslim Worship (CFCM) attempted to remedy this lack of definition by developing the “charter of principles”, supposed to define the role of imams in France. But, as Bernard Godard points out, this charter only gives general principles without specifying the real prerogatives of religious leaders: “The ministers of Muslim religion are attached to different federations which highlight, if not their ideological divergence, at least their national sensitivity. »
Another difficulty for the executive: the training of religious executives. Only two schools in France train future imams in theology: the Al-Ghazali Institute of the Grand Mosque of Paris, which has several annexes, and the European Institute of Human Sciences in Morvan, Burgundy. However, these establishments are not sufficient to provide a recruitment pool for the approximately 2,900 places of Muslim worship.
Beyond religious training, it is also about supporting imams’ access to university training, such as those launched in 2023 by the French Institute of Islamology. An initiative welcomed by Francis Messner, who sees it as a complementary approach to Islam through the social sciences: “It is more judicious to offer academic courses than to bring in imams with questionable or legitimate but not contextualized training,” believes the professor emeritus of the University of Strasbourg.
The myth of the foreign imam
Is the end of detached imams an effective way to fight against separatism? For Bernard Godard, the approximately 200 imams seconded among the 2,000 imams who officiate in France are not the most likely to spread a dissident speech: “The most radical imams are French imams who know society better and are therefore more comfortable advocating a separatist discourse. » The former senior official denounces the “famous myth of the foreign imam who conveys separatism” remembering that detached imams are precisely the most controlled compared to the others.
“It’s a very small part of the solution,” said Tuesday January 2 on RMC Tareq Oubrou, grand imam of Bordeaux, who considers that radical Islam is not only developing in mosques but is increasingly taking over social networks.