As France searches falteringly for a bridge between Muslims and non-Muslims, a new foundation is about to begin work with the declared objective of encouraging “the emergence of a French Islam”.
Few striving for rapprochement quarrel with the Foundation for Islam in France’s aspirations. Some, however, question the choice of a non-Muslim as its first head.
Doubts about Jean-Pierre Chevenement’s suitability grew when he expressed regret that in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, eight primary children in 10 had not mastered French and one of 135 different nationalities had all but disappeared. This was taken as meaning the displacement of indigenous white French, though he insisted his reference was to the traditional working class.
But criticism did not end. One socialist MP described his comments as “scandalous”. A centre-right mayor said the appointment smacked of “paternalism, almost colonialism”.
Chevenement, 77, has been minister of education, defence and the interior. Previously a Parti Socialiste stalwart, he has an independent streak that led him to contest the 2002 presidential election as a “sovereignist”, giving nationalism a left-wing flavour. He won few votes but damaged the socialist Lionel Jospin’s chances of reaching the run-off against Jacques Chirac.
Responding to questions from The National, Chevenement describes the foundation as "having only a lay goal – educational, cultural and social in nature".
“It aims to build a bridge between the republic and Islam and contribute to the emergence of a French Islam for communities originating notably in the Maghreb, Turkey and Sub-Saharan Africa,” he says.
A separate new religious body will deal with the construction of mosques, which France wants to be free of foreign funding, and improved training of imams. Chevenement says institutes of Islamology will also be created within the university system.
He accepts that terrorism, including the Charlie Hebdo killings and the Paris and Nice massacres, aggravates community tensions. “But the French are a long-established republican people and reacted coolly,’’ he says. ‘’The authorities’ objective is to prevent any escalation or anti-Muslim acts that could lead us where Daesh [ISIL] wants: a form of civil war harmful to France and its inhabitants, starting with Muslims.’’
Neither the new foundation nor associated initiatives offers a complete answer, he feels. “We need an overall policy aimed at integrating all fellow-citizens with equal rights and duties. Being part of the republic implies attachment to its principles; that is what defines our patriotism. And the French people is made up of citizens who share the right to practise their religion.’’
To critics, Chevenement points out that when minister of defence, he introduced halal food for French Muslim soldiers. He was also involved in consultations that eventually led to the formation in 2003 of the French Muslim Council, “the only legitimate authority representative of French Muslims”.
He suggests the concept of France’s legislative basis for securalism is widely misunderstood. “The declaration of the rights of man and [in 1789, when the French revolution began] guarantees religious freedom. It was necessary to free society of the omnipotence of the Catholic church. After a century of uncertainty, the 1905 law of separation of church and state, defined this concept very clearly [but] secularity is not used in any way against religions, Islam or others.
“It provides a framework where our fellow-citizens can co-exist peacefully without colliding.”
Some flexibility, he says, already allows councils to negotiate long leases on land for new mosques, easing a national shortage, and faith schools receive state aid provided they respect the national curriculum and public service rules.
“In short, there is a balance,” he says. “Those calling this balance into question are not always inspired by piety. Modification of the 1905 law is not currently on the agenda. The authorities prefer to proceed by small steps.”
Colin Randall is a regular contributor to The Review.