French Muslims in political grey area

MARSEILLE, FRANCE// Francois Hollande's new socialist government shows early signs of being less tolerant towards France's large Muslim community than the previous centre-right administration of Nicolas Sarkozy, according to the co-founder of a body promoting the interests of Arabian Gulf and African nations.

The charge is at first glance surprising given the lengths to which Mr Sarkozy went, in vain, to lure voters in the May presidential election from the far-right, anti-immigration Front National.

But Yana Korobko, secretary of the Paris-based Observatory of the Black, Gulf and Mediterranean Seas (OBGMS), said Mr Hollande's positions were "unusually firm for a leftist in France".

In 2004, when finance minister, Mr Sarkozy published a book, entitled The Republic, Religions, Hope, in which he advocated possible amendment of France's 1905 law separating church and state to allow public funds to be used to help ensure every town had adequate mosques.

France has Europe's largest community of Muslims, estimated at between five and seven million, but in some areas, the lack of places of worship is driving people to pray in makeshift premises.

Socialists committed to secular values were among the book's harshest critics and its proposals were quietly forgotten, although two cities - Strasbourg and Marseille - have found ways of helping local Muslims with mosque building projects.

"The question of new mosques construction remains undecided because of the firm unwillingness of the Europeans to accept another culture on their territory, especially in such large numbers," Ms Korobko said. "It is mainly caused by the historic, social and psychological specificities of the Europeans, and the French people in particular."

She is not alone in being concerned about the outlook of the left as a whole.

Despite the right's obsessions with immigration, especially from former French colonies in North and sub-Saharan Africa, and with the alleged "Islamification" of France, it was a communist mayor who led the campaign to ban the face-covering niqab inpublic.

And a communist-led council in the Parisian suburbs was at the centre of a recent row over attempts to discipline Muslim summer-camp staff for fasting during Ramadan which, it claimed, impaired their ability to work and ensure the safety of children in their care.

The council backed down but Mohand Yanat, a lawyer acting for the four monitors who had initially been suspended, said that while French conservatives generally acted with suspicion towards Muslims, they were "more protective" of their right to practise their faith.

Ms Korobko cautioned against "categorical distinction" between the two main political streams in France.

Mr Hollande's interior minister, Manuel Valls, has promised to dismantle elements of the Sarkozy approach to immigration that the left condemned as a cynical attempt to win voters from the Front National.

Ms Korobko concedes that the government's first steps on immigrant policy do not "explicitly threaten French Muslims".

But nor, she said, do they contradict the strict Sarkozy line that had led to "record numbers of expulsions of undocumented Muslim immigrants, including families with children of French citizenship and second and third generations of French-born Muslims".

Mr Hollande had also spoken against separate menus in public restaurants or women-only sessions in public swimming pools, as sought by Muslims, she said. And he had firmly supported the ban on the full burqa.

She felt the president was unsure how to deal with the "Islam question", torn between a strict line similar to that of Mr Sarkozy and a middle course. A complication for him was that laïcité - secularism - was historically a left-wing idea, whereas most voting French Muslims supported the left.

Indeed, some French Jewish leaders have voiced their own fears about a pro-Arab policy shift under the socialists.

"Hollande would have to find a middle ground between his personal principles [a strict adaptation of laicisation] and his image … in the eyes of the Muslim part of his constituency," she said.

As if to prove her point that there is no clear-cut distinction between the main strands of French politics, a centre-right local administration in the southern town of Saint-Esteve ruled this week that no separate space could be found in the municipal cemetery for Muslims.

Friends of Mokthar Adouanea, a decorated former member of the French military, who died on Monday, occupied the town hall in protest, pointing out that a plot had previously been promised to Muslims.

Yesterday they accepted an offer to bury him in nearby Perpignan but said the controversy was additionally distressing because it had arisen just before Eid.

It is the sort of localised issue that leads Ms Korobko to the conclusion that Europe still struggles to assimilate unfamiliar cultures.

In her work for the OBGMS, having mastered in international relations, international public law and diplomacy at the Sorbonne campuses in Paris and Abu Dhabi, she collaborates with the United Nations scientific and cultural agency Unesco, heading projects to promote "interciviliational dialogue and world peace".

Ms Korobko, who is Ukrainian-born but speaks Arabic among several languages, describes her mission as aiming to overcome "common stereotyping by explaining the truth about Islam to the Christians and vice versa".

Asked in the interview, conducted by e-mail, about the way conflict and controversy dominate media coverage and political discussion of Islam in Europe, she said this was essentially "provoked by political reasons and too easily exploited by religious extremists and racists".

She said that a number or Muslim states, notably the United Arab Emirates, were eager to facilitate promotion of the cause of international peace, with the younger generation in particular open to new ideas.

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