France plans nation-wide Islam and secularism debate
France’s governing party plans to launch a national debate on the role of Islam and respect for French secularism among Muslims here, two issues emerging as major themes for the presidential election due next year. Jean-François Copé, secretary general of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party, said the debate would examine issues such as the financing and building of mosques, the contents of Friday sermons and the education of the imams delivering them.
The announcement, coming after a meeting of UMP legislators with Sarkozy on Wednesday, follows the president’s declaration last week that multiculturalism had failed in France. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have made similar statements in recent months that were also seen as aimed at Muslim minorities there. France’s five-million strong Muslim minority is Europe’s largest.
Copé said the debate, due to start in early April, would ask “how to organise religious practice so that it is compatible in our country with the rules of our secular republic.”
UMP parliamentarians said Sarkozy told them they had to lead this debate to ensure it stays under control. The far-right National Front, reinvigorated with its new leader Marine Le Pen, has recently begun a campaign criticising Muslims here.
“Our party, and then parliament, must take on this subject,” they quoted Sarkozy as saying. “I don’t want prayers in the streets, or calls to prayer. We had a debate on the burqa and that was a good thing. We need to agree in principle about the place of religion in 2011.”
France has sought to keep religion out of the public sphere since it officially separated the Catholic Church and the state in 1905. The
growth of a Muslim minority in recent decades has posed new challenges that lead to sometimes heated debates. The government banned headscarves in state schools in 2004 and outlawed full face veils in public last year. But there are no rules about halal meals in schools, for example, or whether Muslims can pray in the streets outside an overcrowded mosque.
The French government held a country-wide debate on national identity in 2009-2010 that preceded the full face veil ban. Many Muslims criticised the debate, saying it turned into a forum to stigmatise them and let people air biased views about Islam.
Marine Le Pen, daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, stole a march on the UMP in December when she compared Muslims praying in the streets to the wartime Nazi occupation. “Marine Le Pen is getting ratings higher than her father, so at 18 months before the presidential election, you can see why it’s getting urgent (for the UMP) to debate the place of Muslims in France and how they practice their religion,” said RTL radio commentator Marie-Bénédicte Allaire.
When journalists asked Copé if the UMP’s Islam debate would only give credence to Le Pen’s campaign, he said: “Marine Le Pen highlights problems but doesn’t work too much on solutions.” Copé said the UMP would invite “numerous civil and religious personalities (for) broad debates about this absolutely major question. It would be wrong not to deal with this.”
According to the daily Le Figaro, Sarkozy asked the UMP deputies for concrete suggestions within a few months for solving disputed issues about religion in the public sphere.