VALENTON, France (Reuters) – Every week, Mamadou Diagouraga comes to the Muslim section of a cemetery near Paris to stand vigil at the grave of his father, one of the many French Muslims to have died from COVID-19.
Diagouraga looks up from his father’s plot at the freshly-dug graves alongside. “My father was the first one in this row, and in a year, it’s filled up,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
While France is estimated to have the European Union’s largest Muslim population, it does not know how hard that group has been hit: French law forbids the gathering of data based on ethnic or religious affiliations.
But evidence collated by Reuters – including statistical data that indirectly captures the impact and testimony from community leaders – indicates the COVID death rate among French Muslims is much higher than in the overall population.
According to one study based on official data, excess deaths in 2020 among French residents born in mainly Muslim North Africa were twice as high as among people born in France.
The reason, community leaders and researchers say, is that Muslims tend to have a lower-than-average socio-economic status.
They are more likely to do jobs such as bus drivers or cashiers that bring them into closer contact with the public and to live in cramped multi-generational households.
“They were … the first to pay a heavy price,” said M’Hammed Henniche, head of the union of Muslim associations in Seine-Saint-Denis, a region near Paris with a large immigrant population.
The unequal impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities, often for similar reasons, has been documented in other countries, including the United States.
But in France, the pandemic throws into sharp relief the inequalities that help fuel tensions between French Muslims and their neighbours – and which look set to become a battleground in next year’s presidential election.
President Emmanuel Macron’s main opponent, polls indicate, will be far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who is campaigning on issues of Islam, terrorism, immigration, and crime.
Asked to comment on the impact of COVID-19 on France’s Muslims, a government representative said: “We don’t have data that is tied to people’s religion.”
While official data is silent on the impact of COVID-19 on Muslims, one place it becomes apparent is in France’s cemeteries.
People buried according to Muslim religious rites are typically placed in specially-designated sections of the cemetery, where graves are aligned so the dead person faces Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.
The cemetery at Valenton where Diagouraga’s father, Boubou, was buried, is in the Val-de-Marne region, outside Paris.
According to figures Reuters compiled from all 14 cemeteries in Val-de-Marne, in 2020 there were 1,411 Muslim burials, up from 626 the previous year, before the pandemic. That represents a 125% increase, compared to a 34% increase for burials of all confessions in that region.
Increased mortality from COVID only partially explains the rise in Muslim burials.
Pandemic border restrictions prevented many families from sending deceased relatives back to their country of origin for burial. There is no official data, but undertakers said around three quarters of French Muslims were buried abroad pre-COVID.
Undertakers, imams and non-government groups involved in burying Muslims said there were not enough plots to meet demand at the start of the pandemic, forcing many families to call around desperately to find somewhere to bury their relatives.
On the morning of May 17 this year, Samad Akrach arrived at a mortuary in Paris to collect the body of Abdulahi Cabi Abukar, a Somali who died in March 2020 from COVID-19, with no family who could be traced.
Akrach, president of the Tahara charity that gives Muslim burials to the destitute, performed the ritual of washing the body and applying musk, lavender, rose petals and henna. Then, in the presence of 38 volunteers invited by Akrach’s group, the Somali was buried according to Muslim ritual at Courneuve cemetery on the outskirts of Paris.
Akrach’s group conducted 764 burials in 2020, up from 382 in 2019, he said. Around half had died from COVID-19. “The Muslim community has been affected enormously in this period,” he said.
Statisticians also use data on foreign-born residents to build a picture of the impact of COVID on ethnic minorities. This shows excess deaths among French residents born outside France were up 17% in 2020, versus 8% for French-born residents.
Seine-Saint-Denis, the region of mainland France with the highest number of residents not born in France, had a 21.8% rise in excess mortality from 2019 to 2020, official statistics show, more than twice the increase for France as a whole.
Excess deaths among French residents born in majority Muslim North Africa were 2.6 times higher, and among those from sub-Saharan Africa 4.5 times higher, than among French-born people.
“We can deduce that… immigrants of the Muslim faith have been much harder hit by the COVID epidemic,” said Michel Guillot, research director at the state-funded French Institute for Demographic Studies.
“WHY ALWAYS US?”
In Seine-Saint-Denis, the high mortality is especially striking because in normal times, with its younger than average population, it has a lower death rate than France overall.
But the region performs worse than average on socio-economic indicators. Twenty percent of homes are over-crowded, versus 4.9% nationally. The average hourly wage is 13.93 euros, nearly 1.5 euros less than the national figure.
Henniche, head of the region’s union of Muslim associations, said he first felt the impact of COVID-19 on his community when he began receiving multiple phone calls from families seeking help burying their dead.
“It’s not because they’re Muslims,” he said of the COVID death rate. “It’s because they belong to the least privileged social classes.”
White collar professionals could protect themselves by working from home. “But if someone is a refuse collector, or a cleaning lady, or a cashier, they cannot work from home. These people have to go out, use public transport,” he said.
“There is a kind of bitter taste, of injustice. There is this feeling: ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why always us?'”
(Additional reporting by Noemie Olive and Elizabath Pineau, Writing by Caroline Pailliez and Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones)