Macron faces big challenge in defining Islam's place in France

French President Emmanuel Macron (C-R) speaks with a Muslim cleric as he visits the Zitouna mosque in the Medina (old town) of the Tunisian capital Tunis on February 1, 2018, during his first state visit to the North African country. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Eric FEFERBERG
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President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to deliver a keynote speech on Islam in France is the latest in a long line of initiatives to deal with the tangled history of relations with Europe’s largest Muslim population.

Determined to assert himself as a boldly reforming head of state, Mr Macron’s declared aim is to find accommodation between different religions but also between those who worship and non-believers.

At the same time, the centrist president believes, France must tackle real or perceived issues with fundamental strands of Islam.

As Mr Macron will quickly discover, the success or failure of his mission may depend on how well he performs a delicate balancing act.

He must somehow reassure the majority of French people attached to the country’s secular principles without alienating followers of France’s biggest religion after Catholicism and making them feel like “the enemy within”.

In recent history, leaders of the traditional left and right parties rejected by voters in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections have stumbled in their search for a viable twin approach.

The centre-right Nicolas Sarkozy, president from 2007 to 2012, offended French Muslims with his bans on face-covering headwear in public.

After his departure from office, his policy had its logical sequel as mayors in Mediterranean and other coastal resorts banned the so-called burqini in the summer of 2016. This led to unedifying images of police confronting Muslim women on Riviera beaches, though the bans were later overturned by the courts.

Mr Sarkozy also created, when interior minister in 2002, the French Muslim Council (CFCM) as a representative body. But its work has been hampered by internal disputes and the council has not won the respect of significant numbers of Muslims.

Even less successful among Mr Sarkozy’s initiatives was a public debate on national identity launched in 2009. Opponents suspected a thinly disguised attempt to court voters from France's anti-immigration extreme right by exploiting fears about immigration and insecurity.

His socialist successor, Francois Hollande, also struggled to make meaningful advances, forced instead to react with emergency powers and hardline measures to a succession of murderous ISIL attacks in Paris, Nice and elsewhere.

Outlining his own intentions in the French Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, Mr Macron promised a major speech in the first half of this year on the place of Islam in France.

He said he would consult Islamic scholars and also prominent figures from other faiths “because I consider we must be strongly inspired by our history, the history of Catholics and that of Protestants”.

The centre-left news magazine Marianne, named after the French national symbol, said the "floor-to-ceiling" restructuring Mr Macron envisages can hardly avoid reform of the CFCM, "a cumbersome body [that is] supposed to be representative of Muslims in France but has become became the guardian of orthodoxy and never managed to represent their plurality".

As well as considering new representative bodies, Mr Macron will examine the funding of mosques and the training of imams, again familiar territory in France. With terminology that might have come from Mr Sarkozy's lips, a Macron aide told Le Journal du Dimanche that the challenge was to "reduce the influence of Arab countries, which prevents the French Islam from embracing modernity".

Whatever he does, Mr Macron is unlikely to please the far-right, anti-immigration and – many believe – anti-Islam Front National.

Its leader Marine Le Pen was soundly beaten by Mr Macron in the run-off for the presidency last year but still won 10.6 million votes, a third of those cast. She told Europe 1 radio his statements so far were “blurred to say the least” but already betrayed “unbearable, unacceptable" elements, such as the idea of a new, undefined “concordat” with Islam and possible tampering with the cornerstone of French secularism, the law of 1905 separating church and state.

In his dealings with restless trade unions and British Brexiteers, Mr Macron has shown himself up for a fight. But community relations are a minefield he will need to tread carefully.

There is no official figure for French Muslim citizens and calculations vary widely, with five million the most commonly quoted estimate.

Encouragingly for those championing harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims, a recent poll found 56 per cent of those questioned considered Islam compatible with French values - the exact reverse of findings in 2016.