Introduction

France is one of the countries with the longest history of immigration in Europe, and its religious and social problems involving immigrants are complex and emblematic. In recent years, the continual rise in the number of Muslim immigrants has exacerbated the challenges associated with their integration, leading to an increase in religion-related social issues. The claims of Muslim immigrants, as religious minorities, against the secular State in the context of France’s multiculturalism have reawakened consideration of how to strike a balance between religious freedom and religious accommodations (Modood and Sealy, 2021).

As a propaganda tool, the portrayal of Muslim immigrants by the French media and the guidance of secularism are significant factors influencing the integration of immigrants. For a long time, the French media’s image-building of Muslim immigrants has mainly adopted the discourse strategy of secularism (Mavelli, 2013). Regarding secularism, scholars have interpreted it from different perspectives. However, they do not raise the discourse level of secularism to the level of a research problem and lack a comprehensive analysis of the mechanisms of disciplining power in the discourse of secularism.

With the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war, a significant influx of Ukrainian immigrants entered Europe. The French media’s portrayal of these immigrants is marked by contradictory discourses: on one hand, they are praised for their strong social adaptability and presented as a model for immigrants through a secularist lens; on the other hand, references to refugees’ skin color and religion are frequent. Preliminary evidence suggests that Europe’s more favorable reception of Ukrainian refugees (Letki et al., 2024) is significantly influenced by their white ethnicity and Christian background (Moise et al., 2024). This leads to the paradoxical use and policy distortion of secularist discourse, a phenomenon we term “differentiated secularism”.

This paper seeks to uncover the hidden religious elements in the French media’s coverage of immigrants, as well as the motives and mechanisms behind the construction of a differentiated discourse between Muslim and Orthodox immigrants in the French media.

The paper first discusses the concept of secularism and its policy effects, then reviews the research of scholars on the media image of Muslim and Ukrainian immigrants. By collecting and organizing reports related to religious immigrants in the French media, and conducting basket selection and text analysis, the article summarizes the differences in the image of Muslim immigrants and Christian immigrants in French public opinion. On this basis, the article attempts to sort out the process of different constructions of different immigrants by the French media and discovers the discourse paradigm, that is, the discourse shaping mechanism. In this paradigm, the discourse power is entrusted to the universal ideology represented by French secularism, with a complex mechanism, to discipline immigrants through discourse. Through the discussion of the discourse mechanism of “differentiated secularism” in French public opinion, the article reveals its discourse logic and the internal dilemma of immigration policy.

Literature review

Instrumentalization of secularism

Secularism is a complex, multifaceted, and ambiguous concept (Bader, 2010). Originating from the secularization movement during the Renaissance, secularism signifies the separation of religion and politics, with its meaning evolving across different historical stages. From the perspective of secularism’s essence, Rorty (2010) views it, based on ethical grounds, as a form of relativism characterized by a certain openness. This perspective allows individuals to avoid the pursuit and reliance on transcendence, thereby providing a foundation for the operation of modern democratic political procedures. Building on this idea, Larrimore and Chen (2020) re-examined the theoretical legacy of Kallen (1965), emphasizing that the relationship between secularism and religion is not antagonistic but rather a “religion of religions”. This suggests that secularism, to some extent, is also constructed upon a religious stance.

Secularism, as currently discussed by scholars, can be categorized into three main types. The first is moderate secularism, also referred to as “soft” or “negative” secularism. While moderate secularism advocates for the separation of religion and politics, it does not exclude the presence of religious communities and supports a positive role for religious institutions in the public sphere (Espinosa Zárate, 2023; Gülalp, 2023). Its most distinctive feature is its respect for and tolerance of diversity (Modood and Sealy, 2021; Ashimi, 2022; Sealy and Modood, 2022). The biggest challenge it faces is whether it can be multiculturalized, particularly in accommodating Muslims (Modood, 2010).

In contrast, there is radical secularism, or “hard” and “aggressive” secularism. This form emphasizes the strict separation of church and state and advocates for confining religion entirely to the private sphere (Bhargava, 2013; Pio et al., 2024). Radical secularism fundamentally views religion as irrational (Intan, 2023; Kalkan, 2023) and considers itself a defender of the Enlightenment legacy (Paić, 2022; Irudayadason, 2024). Its emphasis on progressiveness leads it to regard itself as a principle rather than merely a philosophy (Akan, 2023).

In addition to these two concepts, some scholars have proposed post-secularism, following the path of Habermas. Post-secularism does not entirely reject the principle of secularism (Madung, 2021). Instead, it advocates for rediscovering the value of religion in the public sphere (Rotlevy, 2024; Vaddiraju, 2024), shifting the ultimate goal towards the pursuit of liberal democratic values (Rudas, 2020; Shook, 2023; Heikki, 2024).

From its core principles, secularism does not inherently adopt a stance of exclusion towards religion. However, most studies on the essence of secularism approach it from a permissive and tolerant pluralistic perspective, without thoroughly examining whether secularism’s essence supplants or negates the religious foundations inherent in Western societies. Consequently, this article aims to explore the potential hierarchy and power dynamics embedded within the concept of secularism itself.

The misuse of the concept of secularism has become a point of contention, with increasing discussion on its instrumentalized use. The neutrality of secularism as a political philosophy is itself questionable when viewed through the lens of instrumentalization (Ahdar, 2013). The instrumentalized use of secularism serves specific internal and external policies (Sandal and Ozturk, 2024). Externally, secularism functions as a foreign policy tool. For instance, Turkey reinforced its secularist attributes in the 1990s to align more closely with the European Union, a tendency that waned as relations with the EU evolved (Yilmaz and Barry, 2020). Internally, secularism is deeply intertwined with the “principles of the Republic,” forming the foundation of French values and discourse (Almeida, 2023; Zhang, 2023). The French concept of “Laïcité” is employed to mitigate or resolve social conflicts (Ragazzi, 2023; Hitchcock, 2024; Lizotte, 2024). This suggests that Muslim values and French secularism are compatible, but require concessions from both sides (Bowen, 2009).

However, secularism can be exploited by populists and reduced to a tool for excluding Muslim immigrants through cultural, religious, and racial metaphors (Nilsson, 2015). In France, this misuse has been criticized as a “betrayal of the founding ideals of France” (Cohen-Almagor, 2022; Fargues et al., 2023). Belhaj (2022), taking the attitude of Muslims towards secularism as a starting point, summarizes through the analysis of criticisms of secularism by Muslim opinion leaders that secularism, as a framework of social inequality, restricts the religious freedom and rights of Muslims. Facing the discipline of secularism, Muslims, based on their micro-power, construct a certain framework of resistance to display the self-image obscured by state power (Almeida, 2023). However, in the theoretical view of Foucault, resistance based on the framework is a means to continue power (Farrell, 2023), not entirely negative. Therefore, the possibility of frame-internal resistance transforming into frame-external resistance prompted by media discourse is more worthy of consideration and research.

The impact of religion on politics

The relationship between church and state varies across European countries, yet the predominantly Christian character remains evident (Castellino and Thomas, 2021). Despite the Great Schism, Catholics and Orthodox Christians share symbolic systems and cultural roots that support dialog for reconciliation (Wasmuth, 2021). The Catholic Church sees serving immigrants as integral to its mission and has aligned strategies with Orthodox teachings to ensure immigrants are respected and integrated (Alva, 2017). Orthodox migrants in Western Europe actively adapt by preserving religious traditions while navigating nationalism, cultural assimilation, and global consumer culture (Hämmerli, 2023).

Since the early 1990s, the rising prominence of Islam has significantly influenced political agendas and public debates across Europe, notably in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, shaped by political participation, church-state relations, and right-wing populism (Dolezal et al., 2010). Inherently, no religion is naturally incompatible with the process of modern democratic politics in Western countries. Through an analysis of their theological perspectives, discernible elements can be identified within both Islam and Catholicism that foster civic autonomy(Jelen, 2017), An analysis of religious and cultural discourse reveals that the political impact of Catholicism (or Christianity) and Islam do not fundamentally differ (Grzymala-Busse, 2016).

Likewise, the tendencies towards illiberalism within Islamism are not unique to Islam. Revisiting Žižek’s dialectical analysis, Khader (2020) addressed controversies like the treatment of women and perceptions of extreme violence, dispelling misconceptions about Islam. Sulaiman (2022) argued that Jihadism’s political relevance depends on a unified Islamic regime and has waned in the post-Caliphate era as it becomes depoliticized. These studies focused on vindicating the oppressed, engaging in restorative research on the doctrines of Islam and Catholicism, primarily through doctrinal analysis.

However, the roles of the two religions in the actual political process are separate from the religious doctrines themselves (Bellin, 2008). Therefore, the impact of religion on politics depends on how it structures relevant discourses and enters the symbolic order (Musolf, 1992; Wolfe, 2010), and should be analyzed based on the historical characteristics and differences in the symbolic systems of the two religions, rather than attempting to demonstrate the superiority or inferiority of the religions themselves.

Media images of different immigrants

The conceptual scope of the term “Muslim” has undergone notable changes. Bleich (2009) found that the phenomenon of discussing “Muslims” as a holistic concept has become more prominent in the 21st century, whereas previously, Muslims in Europe were primarily defined based on economic function, race, and ethnicity. Consequently, “Muslim” cannot be defined solely by religious background (Maxwell and Bleich, 2014). Using the example of French Muslims, scholars have analyzed the labeling process of North African immigrants as “Muslims” (Fellag, 2014), which reveals differences in identity between generations of immigrants, resulting in the integration of descendants of immigrants being less smooth compared to their predecessors (Parikh, 2020). Similar attention has been paid to the identification of differences between Muslim migrants and asylum seekers regarding their religio-cultural background, integration, and identity legitimacy (Mance and Splichal, 2024; Secen, 2024). Notably, the term “Muslim” is highly denotative, with some European media tending to reify migrants who have gained citizenship and religious recognition as “outsiders” (Maghraoui, 2003; Becker, 2024).

This study examines the construct of “Muslim immigrants” in France, as shaped to some extent by media discourse. The main groups included are (1) immigrants and their descendants with Islamic identity who possess citizenship; (2) refugees and asylum seekers with Islamic identity who have been unable to return to their home countries for extended periods; and (3) marginalized immigrants who, after being erroneously labeled as Muslims, have developed an Islamic identity. The timeframe for defining “Muslim” in this study spans from 2019 to 2023.Footnote 1

Regarding the construction of the media image of Muslims, some scholars have analyzed the influence of right-wing forces on the media portrayal of Muslims (Bleich, et al., 2018; Hauge, 2023). For instance, Dolezal et al. (2010) conducted a comparative analysis of public debates on immigration in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, and through the coding analysis of related newspaper articles, they found that right-wing populist forces play a dominant role in shaping the image of Muslims. Other scholars have explored the media image of Muslims in the context of dramatic violent events (Gazzano, 2024). For example, Cinalli and Giugni (2013) found through empirical research that dramatic violent events do not significantly affect attitudes toward Muslims in other issues. Scholars have largely followed the thought trajectory of Said’s Orientalism and Neo-Orientalism, analyzing discrimination and prejudice against Muslim groups in Western media (Xie, 2018; Kerboua, 2016).

From the perspective of the construction effects and functions of Muslim images, the secular discourse of French media has to some extent influenced the image of Muslims, prompting a portion of French Muslims to consciously adapt and begin to uphold French secular values (Firmonasari et al., 2020, 2021). However, the proportion of this effect within the Muslim community requires further research. Some scholars argue that French media constructions of Muslim images do not respect their religion and have found that French Muslims tend to use ethnic media rather than French media (Croucher et al., 2010). For French media, the dichotomy of Europe-Islam to some extent constructs the image of Muslims as enemies (Graham and Haidt, 2012; Gottschalk and Greenberg, 2008), promoting a transnational European value identification. Ait Abdeslam (2019), through analyzing the descriptions of Muslims and Islam in Le Figaro and Le Monde, preliminarily concluded that Muslims are troublemakers and agents of chaos and Islam is violent.

Although the aforementioned studies have preliminarily constructed the image of Muslims, they lack a deeper theoretical explanation for this image and are mostly limited to the analysis of specific media’s negative discourse. This paper argues that media reports defending Muslims also have value for selection and analysis, which can uncover the ideologies implied behind the texts.

Research on the discourse construction of Ukrainian refugee images is relatively scarce. Baltov (2022) studied the alternative media discourses on Syrian and Ukrainian refugees in Bulgarian media using Foucault’s theory of discourse and power, examining the operations of legitimizing and delegitimizing refugee images. He recognized Ukrainian refugees as a privileged group in media discourse; Palmgren (et al., 2023) examined Swedish media discourse on Muslim and Ukrainian immigrants, finding that in the face of Islamophobia, the far-right’s nationalist sentiment towards white people was alleviated, and Muslims were collectively seen as the greatest threat. These two articles provide inspiration for this paper’s comparative analysis of Muslim and Ukrainian images in French media.

Research methods

This paper primarily employs qualitative research methods, analyzing articles from French media regarding Muslim and Ukrainian immigrants. Investigations targeting a particular immigrant group have included both in-depth studies of one country and comparative multi-country analyses (Dolezal et al., 2010; Baltov, 2022; Letki et al., 2024). Unlike previous textual analyses focusing on a single subject, this study adopts a comparative approach by collecting media texts involving two groups. This method aims to reveal the impact of religious identity on their media portrayals. By examining these texts, the study identifies relevant sentences and key terms that reveal the discursive characteristics of the French media itself, as well as the discursive images of Muslim and Ukrainian immigrants. These findings are then subjected to further interpretive analysis.

Data

This study utilized the Europresse media database, setting the filter category to domestic French media. Keywords related to Muslim and Ukrainian immigrants were entered in French, including L’immigration musulmane, Émigration en Ukraine, and Réfugiés en Ukraine. Additionally, Islam, Catholic, and Orthodox were used as keywords to select articles related to Islam, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy as supplementary material. The timeframe was limited to the years 2021 to 2023. After searching by article titles, further filtering was conducted to exclude articles whose titles were irrelevant to their content. Subsequently, through reading each article, those concerning religion and immigration were selected, including both reports and editorials.

The criteria for selecting articles and the number of articles meeting each criterion are as follows (meeting any one criterion was sufficient): (a) Articles describing the uniqueness of Ukrainian immigrants (refugees)—10 articles; (b) Articles on the understanding of Ukrainian immigrants and related immigration issues—19 articles; (c) Articles related to the welcoming and assistance (on various levels) of Ukrainian immigrants—21 articles; (d) Articles depicting the situation and perspectives of Muslim immigrants integrating into France—25 articles; (e) Reports, opinions, and evaluations related to the attributes of Muslim immigrants—23 articles; (f) Articles observing the integration status of Muslim immigrants in other countries and their attitudes towards their religious and cultural practices—2 articles. In total, there were 100 articles related to immigration, with an additional 20 supplementary materials, making a total of 120 articles.

Data analysis

This article utilizes the qualitative analysis software Nvivo to manually perform open coding (Strauss, 1987) and emotional coding on keywords related to Muslim and Ukrainian immigrants in the texts. The standard for open coding is whether it contains a certain ideological tendency or reflects the power relations with immigrants, for example, The Great Replacement (Muslim immigrants), Fortress Europe (Ukrainian immigrants); while the standard for emotional coding is to judge the descriptive words of different immigrant groups as positive or negative (e.g., threat and fear as negative coding, welcome and kindness as positive coding), and to categorize separately words that have multiple emotional attitudes or ambiguous emotional attitudes (such as secularism). The results of the emotional coding are as follows: there are a total of 209 emotional codings for Ukrainian immigrants, of which 46 are positive, 69 are negative, and 104 are unrecognizable; there are a total of 675 emotional codings for Muslim immigrants, of which 88 are positive, 391 are negative, and 196 are unrecognizable; the results of the open coding are roughly as follows: there are 121 related to Muslim immigrants and 168 related to Ukrainian immigrants.

Based on the characteristics of the vocabulary from open coding and emotional coding, a summary and induction are conducted, followed by data visualization processing. It is worth noting that in the selection and analysis of article sentences, this paper attempts to use the method of symptomatic reading (Beilharz et al., 2023; Cheng, 2019; Althusser et al., 2016).

Based on the results of open coding (see Table 1), French media no longer directly associate Muslim immigrants with labels such as barbaric, crazy, or terrorist, nor do they view them as a homogeneous and monolithic object of scrutiny (Said, 1997; pp. 120–123). Instead, they use specific standards to concretize discrimination and negation towards Muslims. As shown in Table 1, secularism is most closely related to Muslim immigrants, who are described as not sufficiently republican and indifferent to republican principles. The key to solving the problem is seen as rising through secularism, that is, making Muslims adhere to secularist principles. This tendency is reflected in the discipline column, for example, the term calibration objectifies Muslim immigrants, turning them into subjects to be adjusted. In describing secularism, French media use metaphors such as the battle of secularism, which suggests the difficulty of reinforcing secularism (Ferrara, 2015).

Table 1 Open coding discourse on Muslim immigrants in French media.

The second column is Invaders and Conspiracies. Muslim immigrants in French media discourse are always related to invaders and conspiracies. This is divided into three levels: territorial and colonial logic, the image of decline, and their religion and culture. The territorial and colonial logic defines Muslim immigrants from the perspective of resources and security, presenting them as a threat from the standpoint of secular politics. The other two levels do not conform to the principles of secularism, whether it is the disappearance of European culture, the destruction of civilization and customs, the decline of Catholicism, or the Crusades, all are depicted from the perspective of civilizational conflict (Samuel, 1993) and identity anxiety.

The third and fourth columns are As Misfits and Objects of Control and Discipline, respectively. The former includes pragmatic reasons such as lack of skills as well as refusal to debate with other ways of thinking, which has a dual metaphor. From the perspective of the French, this ostensibly self-critical description actually reinforces the binary division of us and them (Yuval-Davis, 2010). Rhetoric similar to Enlightened Islam further divides and stitches together Islam, positioning it as a carrier of French republican values and as a standard for evaluating Muslim immigrants, further categorizing Muslim immigrants.

Based on the results of emotional coding (see Fig. 1), the French media’s perspective on Muslim immigrants remains focused on the aspects of religion, culture, and identity. High-frequency words associated with negative, ambiguous, and positive emotions are all highly related to culture and identity. (As shown in Fig. 1) In the negative emotional coding, terms like violence, threat, and racism are frequent, indicating that French media discussions still place Muslim immigrants in a context of chaos and conflict. Notably, the term France appears nine times in the figure, suggesting that a significant portion of the negative emotions related to Muslim immigrants revolves around France, reflecting the nation’s values and national sentiments as driving forces behind negative emotions, in line with the principles of secularism. Moreover, right-wing appears six times in the figure, implying that the responsibility for rejecting Muslim immigrants lies with the right-wing, diverting attention to right-wing elements and thus overlooking the negative emotions towards Muslim immigrants spread by non-right-wing media in the issue setting (Shaw and Martin, 1992).

Fig. 1: French media’s emotionally coded vocabulary on Muslim immigrants.
figure 1

The three rings represent the positive, ambiguous, and negative discourse used in the French media towards Muslim immigrants and their frequency. The pie chart in the centre shows their proportion.

In the ambiguous emotional coding, a considerable number of terms are related to the principles of secularism, such as republic, enlightenment, and democracy. Although politics and France appear six times, the related terms are rather abstract, and words like work, which stems from the reality of Muslim immigrants’ lives, are less common. This reflects the secularist principles’ normative influence on Muslim immigrants, which are more value-oriented and lack the practical content of secularity. In the positive emotional coding, terms like freedom, democracy, France, and diversity are frequent, indicating that in the French media’s discourse system, the evaluation criteria for Muslim immigrants are primarily based on secularism and France’s needs.

Overall, Muslim immigrants present a contradictory image in the discourse of French media, being portrayed as both invaders and subjects to be disciplined. In depicting them as invaders, the media amplifies the social pressures and cultural barriers caused by Muslim immigrants (Feinstein et al., 2022), suggesting that Muslim immigrants have a greater impact on the development of French society than the French themselves, even to the point of replacing them. On the other hand, when described as subjects to be disciplined, Muslim immigrants are seen as needing to be enlightened by secularism, and viewed as a vulnerable group opposite to invaders. In reality, the image of Muslim immigrants is unnatural within this contradictory discourse; a group described as subversive to French society struggles to maintain basic rights. They are expected to integrate into the secularist order but are defined as unable to integrate for various reasons, leaving only the option of extremism.

Essentially, the secularist discipline of Muslim immigrants is hollow, merely focusing on the debate between religion and secular values without delving into the true essence of secularism. It transforms political and cultural security development into a religious concept (Vodenko et al., 2020), integrating into secularist values (May et al., 2014), allowing secularist discipline to spread legitimately under the guise of de-religionization, providing a vent for the anxieties of French societal development. This image itself is the main way Muslim immigrants integrate into French society today.

Based on the results of open coding (see Table 2), the image of Ukrainian immigrants is overall positive and welcoming, but there is a certain deliberateness in the construction of details. As shown in Table 2, the attitude towards Ukrainian immigrants is welcoming, as indicated by terms such as reception, improvement of treatment, and friendliness. The expectations column includes learning French, accelerating integration, and unconditional, the first two of which can be considered soft requirements for Ukrainian immigrants, without a coercive tone, and demonstrate a willingness to help. Constructing the image of welcomed guests also creates a hospitable image of France and serves as self-promotion.

Table 2 Open coding discourses of Ukrainian migrants in the French media.

The reasons for attitude column includes three reasons, with similarity being the most significant, referring to the closeness in religion, skin color, and ethnicity, emphasizing the identification with European white people. The next reason is profitability, suggesting from a secular life perspective that Ukrainian immigrants are considered quality labor, possessing good work ethics and skills capable of generating more economic benefits. Ethics and morals include humanitarianism and moral responsibility, explaining the necessity of welcoming Ukrainian immigrants from the perspective of respecting and protecting human rights, which is often considered a unique heritage of European identity (Buzan et al., 1997).

The image characteristics include evaluation standards, value defenders, and victims and vulnerable groups. The most prominent trait is victims and vulnerable groups. Ukrainian immigrants are portrayed as a vulnerable group among immigrants, mainly consisting of women and children, and most are victims of the Russo-Ukrainian War. This image not only elicits readers’ sympathy but also establishes the uniqueness of Ukrainian immigrants, distinguishing them from other immigrants. Evaluation standards mainly describe Ukrainian immigrants as a benchmark for assessing other immigrants, including double standards, different from other immigrants, and variable geometry reception. The double standards and variable geometry reception reflect the media’s critical and negative attitude towards the unfair treatment of immigrants but also imply that the media does not deny a reasonable comparison and evaluation of immigrants under the same standard. This standard effectively instrumentalizes the image of Ukrainian immigrants as a weapon against other immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants. Value defenders include freedom, democracy, human rights, and Fortress Europe, narratives that link Ukrainian immigrants to the safety of culture and values (Kögler, 2023), and defend the concept of Europe geographically (Burgess, 2011). These traits portray Ukrainian immigrants as a contradictory image—a fragile yet brave and solid ally.

Based on the results of emotional coding (see Fig. 2), negative emotions regarding Ukrainian immigrants are concentrated on traditional forms of exclusion (viewing immigrants as burdens and obstacles) and dissatisfaction with the double standards applied to Ukrainian immigrants compared to other immigrants. The terms double and standards appeared at least three times, crisis four times, and classification twice. The targets of negative emotions are not directly Ukrainian immigrants but rather the related prejudices and discrimination. In the ambiguous emotional coding, most terms correspond to the characteristics of Ukrainian immigrants, such as women and children. Additionally, terms like housing and language indicate that the issues of Ukrainian immigrants’ lives and integration are receiving attention. In positive emotional coding, the term unity appears most frequently, a total of 18 times, suggesting that Ukrainian immigrants are considered friends similar to the French. In this metaphor, the French and Ukrainian immigrants face a common threat and need to stand together, thus unity is needed to build and strengthen a collective identity of us. Other terms indicate that positive emotions towards Ukrainian immigrants generally align with their characteristics and reasons for being welcomed, such as freedom, learning, work, and benefits. Notably, the term language appears in all three types of emotional coding, highlighting that language is key to social integration in France, as it is often considered a carrier of culture and values (Mills, 2020), but this specific requirement is less common in the discourse concerning Muslim immigrants.

Fig. 2: Emotionally coding vocabulary about Ukrainian migrants in the French media.
figure 2

The three rings represent the vocabulary, frequency, and proportion of positive, ambiguous, and negative discourse about Ukrainian migrants in the French media.

Overall, the image of Ukrainian immigrants is also contradictory, embodying victims, defenders, and contributors. Ukrainian immigrants, as victims, are described as women and children tormented by the Russo-Ukrainian War, who are to become economic immigrants with high skills and integrated into the labor market, often requiring more costs and social resources. However, in the discourse of French media, they are selected as talents contributing to France, and their attributes as white people and Christians are more frequently mentioned in the data. Furthermore, the French media links the victim experiences of Ukrainian immigrants with secularist principles and the safety of European values, reinforcing identification and making the vulnerable Ukrainian immigrants a part of defending their own civilization’s symbols, which is also an instrumentalization of Ukrainian immigrants.

Differentiated secularism: discourse discipline, image shaping, and religious factors

Secularism as a tool of discursive power

French secularism is fundamentally a conservative and nationalist stance. It attempts to transcend the limitations of France’s religious cultural perspective, adopting a conditionally inclusive position to distinguish itself from the unconditional inclusiveness of multiculturalism in other Western countries (Peter, 2021). However, its discursive posture is still based on a territorial logic of control discourse (Harvey, 2007).

The data we have collected from 2019 to 2023 shows that secularism is an important tool for French media in constructing discourse around Muslim immigrants. This significance is not entirely equivalent to some scholars’ description of secularism as a weapon (Allen, 2023), but rather, on this basis, it becomes an identity unique to France (or Europe).

It’s noteworthy to ask: Why is secularism, as a value and principle of France, always centered around Muslim immigrants, while it’s hard to find its presence in other political issues? A reasonable explanation is that the French view secularism as a symbol of progress (Chelini-Pont and Ferchiche, 2015), and they consider themselves as the possessors of this value. Although they claim secularism is an open concept and acknowledge that secularism does not oppose religion, this does not prevent them from treating secularism as an existence that transcends religion. This means that French media discourse inherently adopts a more progressive and enlightened stance in describing Muslim immigrants. This enlightened Enlightenment stance inevitably carries a form of hypocrisy (Smith, 2016) because it disguises itself as rootless, concealing its own identity background. To maintain this stance, the local French have to cancel their identity as white people and Christians, transitioning from players to judges to evaluate everything about Muslim immigrants.

In the French media’s strategy of constructing discourse about Muslim immigrants, the portrayal of them as “delinquents” is a particularly notable approach. Foucault (1995, pp. 251–256) explained the continuity and reproduction of prison power through the concept of the delinquent (individuals judged to have improper behavioral habits entering prison). In the French discourse system about Muslims, Muslims are strongly associated with difference and instability (Ghazouani, 2018), whether or not media discourse supports these views, they are intentionally or unintentionally framed within related issues.

In this context, Muslim immigrants are depicted as “misfits” who do not conform to French values and are in need of correction, with a primary emphasis on encouraging Muslims to adhere to French secular principles. However, French media’s secular discourse does not truly discuss how Muslim immigrants can accept secular principles but repeatedly justifies the legitimacy and legality of Muslims accepting secularism. This repetition is hollow; it does not genuinely promote the integration of Muslim immigrants into France through secular principles but allows this discourse discipline to continue indefinitely. The French media act as intermediaries of power, ensuring the presence of power through the faults of Muslim immigrants. To distinguish themselves from fundamentalists or jihadists, these Muslim immigrants (including their descendants) comply with the mainstream values of French media, attempting to change the media’s stereotypes about Muslim immigrants.

However, this approach does not stop the French media’s discourse discipline on Muslim immigrants, nor does it promote integration. Under this nearly infinite binary strategy, Muslim immigrants are dissected into good and bad, secular and superstitious, and their religious beliefs are crudely divided into enlightened Islam, false Islam, etc. As the units of power increase, the original discursive space of Muslim immigrants will be continuously eroded, and the concept of Muslim immigrants as a whole is gradually fragmenting. More and more Muslim immigrants are excluded from the range of acceptable Muslims.

Does this discursive power mechanism represent a consistent strategy of French media towards different religious immigrants? The answer appears to be no. Ukrainian immigrants are portrayed quite differently. In French media discourse, Ukrainian immigrants are depicted as contributors, treated with dignity due to their perceived stronger work ethic and adaptability. On the surface, this suggests that France’s differential treatment is not a double standard but based on pragmatic considerations. However, the portrayal of Ukrainian immigrants still emphasizes their identity as white, Christian, and European (Li, 2022). Essentially, both Ukrainian and Muslim immigrants are othered, but in different ways: Muslim immigrants are presented as heterogeneous and distinct others, while Ukrainian immigrants are framed as more similar and homogenized others, both within a French-centric discourse.

The textual analysis reveals that by portraying Ukrainian immigrants positively, French media have established an ideal standard of immigration. This classification distinguishes Ukrainian immigrants from other groups, thereby reinforcing the marginalization of Muslim immigrants. This marking is covert, using a close-distant comparative relationship, allowing French media to avoid the risks of politically incorrect discourse (Ozzano and Bolzonar, 2020) to some extent, thus leveraging the image of Ukrainian immigrants to continue the discourse discipline on Muslim immigrants and maintain the operation of discursive power.

Shaping immigrant images and false debates

In media narratives, the West is not an omnipotent master but a split subject. On one hand, the West still tries to maintain its dignity and status; on the other hand, its anxiety and fear of its own decline are significantly increasing (Onea, 2014). Although French media still use secularist discourse to discipline Muslim immigrants in some contexts, in others, France has shifted from the image of the master to that of the victim.

The textual analysis identifies representative codes at three levels: “European culture is disappearing; the destruction of civilization and custom,” “the image of Islamic conquest, unsafe,” and “the weakening of Catholicism” (see Table 1). These codes reflect underlying assumptions in French media that associate Muslim activities with the erosion of France’s social, political, and cultural security. Muslim actions are framed as “conquest” and “intrusion” (see Table 1). The French media discourse, as evidenced by the data, is often premised on a narrative of national decline, portraying France as traumatized and Muslims as aggressors.

The contradiction in French media discourse lies in its failure to uphold a full secularist identity, allowing religious and cultural biases to influence political issues. This undermines the integrity of secular identification, driven by anxiety and fear of decline. Such anxiety transcends media discourse, indicating broader societal transformations and political practices, which are beyond the permissible scope for French media as an instrument of power. Consequently, French media substitute the fear of national decline with the fear of losing cultural identity, thereby amplifying France’s self-identification in their discourse.

On one hand, French media coverage of Ukrainian immigrants carries a projection of self-identification. Ukrainian immigrants, as white and Christian, allow the French locals who fear losing their identity to once again feel their sense of belonging, revisiting the mirror stage (Muller, 1985), and strengthening the imagination of their own identity. Furthermore, Ukrainian immigrants in French media reports are portrayed as defenders of democratic freedom, an image that further symbolizes France’s trauma (Van Boheemen, 1999), representing the fear of Western culture and values being destroyed and replaced, and thus pointing to the narrative of religious and cultural security in France under the guise of secularism. Under this logic, the French media’s warmer discourse towards Ukrainian immigrants does not necessarily indicate genuine concern for them but rather uses the image of Ukrainian immigrants as an intermediary of desire (Wu, 2011). When French media report on Ukrainian refugees with humanistic language, they are actually speculating on the desires of Ukrainian refugees, using their experiences of leaving home due to war and their needs for safety and care as a channel for the desire to enter the Other (Belsey, 1993; Homer, 2016), and producing discourse around these desires (Kornbluh, 2018).

As shown in Table 2, by describing and empathizing with the suffering of Ukrainian immigrants while portraying them as defenders of democracy—more friendly, adaptable, and distinct from other immigrants—the French media construct a narrative of defense and counterattack against Muslim immigrants. This positions France further as a victim in the clash of civilizations. Consequently, a logic of desire in the French media emerges to discipline Muslim immigrants, with this unfillable lack of driving and structuring the reproduction of discursive discipline.

On the other hand, Muslim immigrants, as bearers of a heterogeneous culture, are cast as replacers and invaders. French media, by linking Ukrainian immigrants with Muslim immigrants, create a fantasized path: the French fantasize about losing an ideal secular France they never had, linking it with past prosperous historical experiences (Mols and Jetten, 2014), and attempting to turn the progressiveness of secularism into their inherent attribute. Their anxiety and fear are because others have tainted secularism, thereby invading and depriving them of their rightful place and position (Stavrakakis and Chrysoloras, 2006).

The open-control discourse of French media is reflected in the setting of debates. According to the data analysis in the previous section, the highest relevance to Muslim immigrants is religion and culture, with few strong economic and political issues, only pseudo-political issues such as veils as a political offensive. This indicates that Muslim immigrants in France are actually bound by media discourse within the identity of religion and culture (Galonnier, 2015), and French media, through this open-control discourse, give Muslim immigrants false freedom of choice (Žižek, 1999, pp. 17–19; Moriarty, 2001), pushing the responsibility onto Muslim immigrants. Due to this illusory freedom of choice, the image of Muslim immigrants does not exist directly as a repressed being but as an incomprehensible existence that violates the rules and order of universality, which is the ultimate form of hysteria.

In some of the French media’s discourse on Muslim immigrants, French media occupy the position of the master signifier, creating the desires of Muslim immigrants through implication, thus eliminating the possibility of them questioning the master. For example, linking the desires of Muslim immigrants with The Great Replacement, Islamism, and Communitarianism. This inverted discourse of hysteria externalizes the problem to some extent, clearly delineating all causes of the problem from the symbolic order of Western universality, and ultimately pointing to the symbol system of madness and barbaric terrorism (Foucault, 1967). However, the contradiction is that in the context of French media, the plight of Muslim immigrants is always associated with the symbol system of identity, culture, terrorism, or religious extremism (Scalvini, 2013; NAEEM, 2022), and this structure of discourse actually promotes the possibility of radicalization among Muslim immigrants.

For French media, the use of politically correct language actually provides a shortcut for the hidden prejudices and hostility towards Muslim immigrants to pass through legitimacy checks. For readers, the adherence of French media to politically correct discourse norms showcases their inclusiveness and progressiveness. At the same time, the negative implications in French media reports on Muslim immigrants also serve as a form of negative prejudice affecting readers’ ideologies, cultivating the deepest racism and stereotypes. This creates a contradictory state where, on one hand, readers tend to follow the norms of political correctness, maintaining the jouissance of including the Other (Žižek, 2008), while on the other hand, readers still maintain their prejudices against Muslim immigrants under the influence of implication.

The impact of religious cultural differences

Religious culture, as an element of Western discourse, inevitably possesses a utilitarian nature (Peker, 2022), but the characteristics of religion itself also intervene in the symbolic system to some extent, forming a unique paradigm that influences the shaping of discourse. Postman (2006) believes that the medium is the metaphor, meaning that the carrier of communication itself also affects the content of communication. To some extent, the religious elements in discourse are also a medium. The doctrines and connotations of religion and culture, by influencing signifiers and the symbolic system, affect the way discourse is shaped and understood (Uzlaner, 2017).

First, the images of Catholicism and Islam in French media discourse can be compared.

In the tradition of Catholicism, secularization, in the form of separation of church and state, has taken on some of the desires of Catholicism, but this does not mean that Catholicism no longer influences politics (Curanovic, 2010; Lott, 2017). It infiltrates public and political life with its ideology, realizing certain moral desires through proceduralization and universalization (Gauchet, 2005), which is the advantage of Catholicism entering the symbolic system of discourse. Previous analyses in this paper reveal that French media discourse is influenced by the symbolic advantage of Catholicism, which facilitates labeling, implies the superiority of Catholicism, and seeks to exert power through this symbol.

In contrast, Islam’s Allah is an abstract existence (Ali, 2016), and its doctrines and cultural connotations are difficult to symbolize. It retains a certain space in faith and practice (Powers, 2004), and Islam does not have a religious authority as powerful as that of Catholicism (Peter, 2006). Therefore, its religious power largely depends on the development of the ruling regime, and Islam, not combined with political power, lacks the influence to intervene in the symbolic order and is difficult to exit through secularization. Thus, compared to Catholicism, it is more like a passive entry. Consequently, the media often resorts to superficial interpretations of Islam to fill the void of symbolization (Popal, 2023), using direct terms like veils, robes, and jihadism.

French media, based on the cognition and discourse shaping methods of Catholicism, will forcibly symbolize Islam, which resists symbolization. In reality, modern Islam relies more on the conscious practice of its followers to maintain a certain authority (Zaman, 2012).

This characteristic affects the French media’s shaping of Islamic discourse, meaning that Islam, as a religion, cannot meet the requirements for symbolization and needs to re-enter as a political mobilization. Islam, forcibly symbolized itself requires clarifying self-explanation and self-defense to prove its legitimacy and harmlessness (Bakar, 2009). Due to its own difficulties in symbolization and the media’s compensatory shaping, Islam can no longer ensure its purity as a religion and becomes a stitched-together product.

In summary, the differences in the characteristics of symbolization between Catholicism and Islam affect the shaping of discourse by French media, providing conditions for the exclusionary discourse against Muslim immigrants. The differences between the two religions are not due to the superiority or inferiority of their doctrines but are caused by their different characteristics and adaptability to symbolization.

Next, we compare the images of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in French media discourse.

The relationship between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy was historically tense and fraught with contradictions (Orlich, 2008). However, in the discourse shaping of French media, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy present a relatively harmonious situation (Gilles, 2022). Their similarity lies in the fact that they essentially share a symbolic system and both originate from Christian culture (Makrides, 2012). This similarity provides conditions for the discourse-shaping strategy of French media, while doctrinal conflicts do not play a decisive role.

From a geopolitical perspective, French media’s efforts to embrace Eastern Orthodoxy largely involve including Ukraine in the European camp (Minesashvili, 2023) to isolate political opponents. As evidenced by the positive vocabulary in Fig. 2, the media depict French Catholicism as inclusive and hospitable, warmly welcoming friends from the East. This imagery metaphorically inverts the paradigm of civilizational conflict unconsciously, responding to the absent heterogeneous civilization through friendly contact between homogeneous civilizations of the East and West.

French media’s sudden harmony between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy metaphorically indicates that France is facing a greater crisis. Through analysis, we find that Islam actually occupies the symbolic position of crisis, creating a differentiated comparative effect: on one side is the harmony between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and on the other is the discord between Catholicism and Islam. Notably, in French media discourse, the frequency of Catholicism and Islam appearing together is relatively low, while secularism and Islam appear together more frequently. Therefore, the latter is more covertly revealed through the inconsistency in the identification held by French media when dealing with the two religions, affecting the construction of discourse on Muslim immigrants.

Conclusion

This study finds that French media discourse on immigrants from different religious backgrounds is differentiated. On one hand, French media coverage of Muslims is contradictory and tends towards the negative. Muslim immigrants are portrayed in French media discourse as a contradictory image, depicted both as invaders and sources of social pressure and as vulnerable groups in need of secular enlightenment. The secular discipline for Muslim immigrants is hollow, focusing only on the debate between religion and secular values without truly delving into the essence of secularism. French media use politically correct language norms to cover up prejudice and hostility towards Muslim immigrants, while cultivating racism and stereotypes among readers, creating a contradictory state. This approach, in fact, exacerbates the venting of societal anxiety about the development of French society.

On the other hand, French media show a relatively positive attitude towards Ukrainian immigrants. The image of Ukrainian immigrants is shaped mainly through the expression of welcoming and expectant attitudes and the reasons for these attitudes, but there is a certain deliberateness in the construction details. Overall, the image of Ukrainian immigrants is contradictory, depicted simultaneously as welcomed guests, victims, defenders, and contributors, selected as talents contributing to France, emphasizing their similarity to the French, while also being instrumentalized to strengthen French identity and values.

Secularism has become an important tool for French media in constructing discourse on immigrants, showcasing a unique French identity. French secularism is essentially a conservative and nationalist stance, attempting to transcend the religious culture of France through conditionally inclusive means, but its discourse is still based on territorial logic of control. French media, with the help of secularist discourse, shape Muslim immigrants as incompatible with French values and in need of correction, but do not truly discuss how Muslim immigrants can accept secular principles, instead repeatedly emphasizing their legitimacy and legality, maintaining discourse discipline. Through discourse control over Muslim immigrants, binding them to religious and cultural identity, giving them false freedom of choice, while externalizing the problem, blaming Muslim immigrants for the problem. The media’s shaping of immigrant images shows contradiction, trying to maintain its own dignity and status on one hand, and displaying anxiety and fear of its own decline on the other. In constructing a discourse on Muslim immigrants, it cannot maintain a complete secular identity but shows anxiety and fear of decline, emphasizing French self-identity.

Driven by the logic of desire, the West needs to discipline the other as immigrants, providing tools to explain trauma. Discourse mainly consists of three components: discourse power and discipline, the desire for discourse shaping, and the understanding and dissemination of discourse. The desire for discourse shaping is caused by the trauma of decline, a retroactive construction imagining a return to a powerful past, serving as the motivation and logical support for discipline and dissemination, and this trauma is projected onto different images of the other in various forms, providing material for the other two components. Moreover, discourse power and discipline need to be better replicated and spread through dissemination and public understanding, rising to a universal ideology, and this process requires different discourse postures to rationalize this ideology.

French media, based on the predicament of French societal development, project the psychology of helplessness and victimhood onto the image of Ukrainian immigrants, while projecting anxiety and fear onto the image of Muslim immigrants. To alleviate trauma, French media retroactively constructed a France made strong by secularism. On this basis, France uses secularist discourse as a standard tool, recognizing Muslim immigrants who accept secularism and viewing those who do not as invaders, using the mechanism of the delinquent to classify and discipline Muslim immigrants. However, this is not conducive to the deep integration of immigrants.

This study finds that the characteristics of religious culture itself also affect media discourse shaping. French media’s shaping of images of Catholicism and Islam differs. Specifically, French media, leveraging symbolic differences and similarities and the symbolic advantage of Catholicism, deconstruct and reconstruct Islam, and through friendly metaphors with Eastern Orthodoxy, place Islam in a dangerous metaphor. Catholicism, because of its ideological way of infiltrating public life, is more easily shaped through symbolization, thus presenting a relatively harmonious relationship. In contrast, Islam, due to its religious power depending more on political power than Catholicism and being difficult to symbolize, is arbitrarily interpreted by the media. French media, based on the cognitive mode of Catholicism, forcibly symbolizes Islam, requiring it to clarify self-explanation and self-defense, leading to its inability to maintain purity, becoming a stitched-together product. French media’s harmonious metaphor between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy metaphorically indicates that France is facing a greater crisis, placing Islam in the symbolic position of crisis, showing discord between Catholicism and Islam, and affecting the construction of discourse on Muslim immigrants.

There are also shortcomings and limitations. It did not deliberately distinguish between immigrants and refugees, nor did it pay enough attention to the differences in expression between the two. Additionally, the relationship between this discourse and political-economic issues lacks sufficient attention, which warrants further research.