Thursday, 12 April 2012

France election 2012: Islam takes centre stage in battle for France

Mounia Bassnaoui is living on the edge. Since the 23-year-old decided a year ago to wear an Islamic veil, cloaking her body and head but leaving her face visible, she has been spat at, chased down the road and endured shouts of "al Qaeda!" from gangs of youths in her Paris neighbourhood.
She lost her job as a junior accountant with the government, owing to French regulations banning religious clothing in state buildings. And, despite being born in France to Moroccan parents, she feels she may have to leave the country for Holland or the UK.
"It's frightening at the moment," she said. "France is the worst place in Europe to be a Muslim, because the government is so against us. And if Nicolas Sarkozy is re-elected, it can only get worse."
But the sense of fear is, for many French voters, mutual. Last week French police launched the latest of a series of raids on suspected Islamic militants, detaining 10 people across the country in predawn arrests. Five Islamic fundamentalists were also kicked out of France or told not to return, and concerns over Islamic fundamentalism have made security one of the key talking points with two weeks to go in the presidential election campaign.
Supporters of Mr Sarkozy, battling for re-election, claim that he is being tough on dangerous radicals and protecting France. His opponents point out that stirring up fear of Islamic fundamentalists is a very convenient way of appearing as a strong, dynamic president.
And, ironically for a country which takes great pride in upholding secular values, the question of religion – specifically Islam – is taking awkward centre stage in the campaign in a way that would be unthinkable in Britain.
The three elements of immigration, security and Islamic fundamentalism are frequently spoken of in the same breath – and have always been a favoured topic for Mr Sarkozy, who made his name as interior minister by taking on the angry young men in the mainly Muslim suburbs of Paris during the 2005 riots.
In September, he decided to ban praying in the streets, after photos of Friday prayers spilling out onto the pavements were seized upon by far-Right candidate Marine Le Pen as evidence of a supposed Muslim takeover.
Early on in his presidential campaign this year, he decided that halal meat was "the issue that most preoccupies French voters", and promised to introduce a law enforcing the labelling of all meat killed in accordance with Islamic traditions.
And three weeks ago, when al-Qaeda admirer Mohamed Merah murdered seven people in a nine-day terrorist rampage through Toulouse, Mr Sarkozy was quick to return once again to his favoured themes of security, immigration and dangerous extremists.
"France will not tolerate ideological indoctrination on its soil," he said, and vowed to send to prison anyone who viewed jihadist videos online or visited international training camps.
The shining of a political spotlight onto France's estimated six million Muslims – the largest such population in Europe – is greeted with a weary sigh by most people in La Goutte d'Or, Paris's most ethnically-mixed district.
Amid the narrow streets filled with shops selling bright African batik fabrics or cheap flights to Togo, butcher Amirouche Massoud, 43, has seen it all before.
"It's always the same," he said, hacking into cuts of meat with a cleaver while he spoke. "Politicians turn on Islam to hide other civic or social problems that they don't want to talk about.
"We're bored of all this shouting about Islam. The whole halal meat debate was stupid – no one thinks that was necessary. There are more important issues to deal with, like unemployment or the economy."
Indeed, a BCPE poll 10 days ago showed that French voters thought employment was the most pressing issue for the country. Immigration was only ninth in the list of priorities, and yet it is a theme to which French politicians return time and time again.
The first round of the French presidential election has parallels with US primaries: Mr Sarkozy must fight off challengers on the Right, while the Socialist contender Francois Hollande battles with rivals on the far Left. Only when the two leading candidates emerge from the vote on April 22 are they free to fight one another for the centre ground before the decisive second round on May 6.
That means many months have been spent grabbing headlines, striking poses and making dramatic promises - and on the Right, as Mr Sarkozy has sought to see off the Front National challenger, Miss Le Pen, Islam and immigration have become central to the debate.
Yet conflating the two may be a mistake. "French politicians across the spectrum link Islam and immigration, and the French people end up believing this," said Professor Olivier Roy, a French authority on the link between Islam and politics and an adviser to the French foreign ministry.
"But it's not the case; the wave of North African immigration has slowed to a trickle, and most immigrants now come from China or Eastern Europe."
This week marks the first anniversary of a law banning the wearing of full-face veils – burkas or niqabs – in public. Mohamed Merah, the Toulouse terrorist, told police negotiators that he launched his attacks partly in revenge for the French burka ban.
The legislation sparked intense debate, with proponents arguing that it protected women who were forced to cover their faces. Opponents, such as Rachid Nekkaz, a Parisian property developer and campaigner, claim that the ban is against fundamental values of freedom and tolerance.
"I agree that the niqab should not be allowed in closed public places like schools or state buildings, but it is outrageous that the government decides what people can or can't wear on the street," he said.
Women who continue to wear the veils can be fined up to €150, and Mr Nekkaz, whose wife is an American Catholic, has personally paid 57 fines on behalf of such offenders. In total, he said, 367 women had contacted him after being stopped for wearing the veil over the past year - not all of them were fined - and he is currently taking the French government to court over the law.
And yet the fact remains that, for many French people, there is real concern over the "enemy within". Certainly the Toulouse shootings revealed some uncomfortable home truths about a deeply-divided French society.
The banlieus are full of young, angry, dispossessed people who are easy prey for hardened radicals, looking to find new recruits for jihad against the West. It is a volatile environment, riven with crime and delinquency, and in the minds of many a frightening nest of extremism.
"I couldn't ever bring myself to vote for Marine Le Pen, but I do think she's right to say this rise in Islamic fundamentalism is worrying," said Sarah, a marketing executive hurrying to work in central Paris, who would not give her full name. "We don't know what is happening in the suburbs and Toulouse showed how dangerous that can be."
A businessman, who also didn't want to give his name, said: "The arrests of the Islamic radicals surely proves that there is something bad going on there. We do need our politicians to protect us and protect our values."
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda since the death of Osamam bin Laden, has declared that France is ready for "an awakening", and urged North Africans – Algerians in particular – to rise up against the country he blames for a long line of sins in the Muslim world.
So it is perhaps not surprising that many in France seem to welcome the tough measures Mr Sarkozy has been taking. Over the past fortnight, almost 30 suspected Islamic radicals have been arrested in a series of raids across the country. The arrests on Wednesday were carried out with an accompanying television crew, to the professed "astonishment" of opposition politician Francois Bayrou.
The French satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine suggested that the raids had been brought forward, despite the evidence being incomplete, on the orders of the Elysee – and, for whatever reason, all those arrested were released again without charge on Friday.
Seventeen sympathisers of the Forsane Alizza – a banned Islamic group which called for a Muslim civil war – were also arrested last month, including their leader Mohamed Achamlane.
Mr Achamlane's arrest – as with the death of Mohamed Merah – has angered some.
"I knew him – we did business together in Tours," said one man in Couronnes, a predominantly Muslim Paris suburb.. "He wasn't a bad man. He was only interested in protecting Muslims. We need more like him." The French government evidently disagrees.
On Friday, the annual gathering of the Union of Islamic Organisations (UOIF) took place at a conference centre on the outskirts of Paris, with 100,000 Muslims expected over four days to hear readings from the Koran, debate the role and responsibilities of Muslims in France – and shop.
Inside the huge conference hall, hawkers offered everything from DVDs of top preachers and punnets of dates to property in Dubai and funeral services in Saudi Arabia. Rails of garishly-coloured Islamic outfits hung from the stalls, while one vendor offered T-shirts with the slogan: "I'm Muslim: Don't Panik" (sic).
Sarah Noura, 25, was touting organic hand cream – despite herself wearing black gloves and a niqab that covered her entire body, with only a slit for her eyes.
"In theory I could get arrested for this, and my parents hate me wearing it," she said. "But the police leave me alone. And anyway, I am willing to go to prison for my right to dress how I choose."
On the eve of the highly-charged meeting, Mr Sarkozy issued an open letter to Ahmed Jaballah, president of the UOIF, warning him that he would "not permit... calls to violence, hatred, or anti-semitism, which are unacceptable attacks on human dignity and republican principles."
He had already insisted that several would-be participants from abroad be denied visas to attend, and said he "regretted" he could not ban Swiss citizen Tariq Ramadan, an Oxford university professor who was an adviser to Tony Blair.
Mr Jaballah, the president of the UOIF, pointed out that the annual forum had been held for the past 29 years and saaid he was "bemused" at Mr Sarkozy's attacks on his organisation. "I really hope that after the election the situation will calm down," he told The Sunday Telegraph.
So, with six million Muslims in France, why does he think Mr Sarkozy is apparently unconcerned about winning their electoral support?
"Because they don't vote," he said simply. "We try to encourage them in that, to be part of the decision. But banning our moderate, internationally-acclaimed speakers from attending this conference is not a way of encouraging debate. And if you don't allow a wide-ranging moderate debate, then you open the door to extremists."
Back in La Goutte d'Or, many thought it was right to ban those with extreme views. "We don't want them here – they give us all a bad name," said Rose, a fiery lady wearing a veil who works in a travel agents.
And she praised Mr Sarkozy's rapid removal of five Islamic militants last week. When told about Britain's efforts to remove Abu Qatada, the Jordanian radical, Rose laughed. "You should just kick him out. He's an embarrassment to all Muslims," she said.
"I don't like much of what Sarkozy has done. But I do think that was a good move."
Veronique Rieffel, director of the Institute for Islamic Culture, was trying to douse the flames of fervour.
She set up the centre in 2006 to celebrate Islamic culture, host debates, and combat the stigmatisation of the community. And, although admitting that this was a “difficult” moment, she maintained that – culturally, at least – France was still a tolerant place.
“We are here to counter the sensationalism in the media,” she said. “Islam is seen as something that is frightening, but it’s not a monolithic structure – it’s very diverse.
“People come here and heave a sigh of relief that they can actually be themselves. It’s not easy to be a Muslim in France sometimes.”



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