Uncertain future for France’s Muslim council

May 5, 2008

2003 launch of French Muslim Council with Nicolas Sarkozy (l), then French interior minister, 3 May 2003/Jacky NaegelenThe future of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), the state-backed body meant to represent the country’s second-largest religion, is once again shrouded in uncertainty. The Grand Mosque of Paris (GMP) announced on Saturday it would boycott elections next month for the CFCM leadership. Although the Grand Mosque and its national mosque network rank third in size behind rival organisations, a CFCM without it is a rump organisation that cannot really claim to represent Islam in France.

The CFCM has been paralysed by internal rivalries for most of its five years of existence. Back in 2003 when he was interior minister, France’s current President Nicolas Sarkozy engineered an agreement among the country’s main Islamic groups to create a council to speak for Muslims similar to the way the French Bishops’ Conference speaks for Catholics or the Consistory speaks for Jews. His ministry’s Religious Affairs Bureau kept close tabs on the Council and influenced its operations behind the scenes. But the CFCM could not overcome the divisions within the Muslim community itself. It rarely acted as a single body and member groups continued to compete with each other.

That competition now threatens the June 8 election.

Grand Mosque of Paris courtyard, 3 May 2008/Tom HeneghanWhile the Grand Mosque of Paris is the symbolic centre of French Islam, the main Muslim group are the Moroccan-backed Rally for French Muslims (RMF) and the Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF), which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood. The RMF has been steadily gaining ground and has strong backing from Rabat (it even held a conference of 250 leaders in Marrakech in February). Moroccan immigrants in France tend to be more observant than the Algerians close to the GMP (which is directly supported by Algiers). They have opened many mosques and prayer rooms around the country, often in suburbs or small towns where they can get ample prayer space.

That factor boosts their clout within the CFCM, because the Council elections are based on the total prayer space each organisation commands, with 10 delegates for every 1,000 square metres of prayer space in the mosques. Only these delegates are allowed to vote in the national and regional Council elections. As one GMP source put it, “All one needs to do is buy premises in the suburbs, throw a few rugs on the floor and declare the place a mosque, even if there isn’t an imam.”

The first two elections, in 2003 and 2005, were decided in advance because the Interior Ministry ensured that Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur was installed as the Council’s president no matter result what his network garnered in the actual voting. The Moroccans (then in another organisation called the FNMF) “won” both those polls and Rabat is actively supporting the RMF to do this again. This time around, the current Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie consulted Algiers and Rabat but did not engineer any such deal. The CFCM faced its first open election.

Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur, 3 May 2008/Tom HeneghanFailing to have the earlier deal upheld, the Grand Mosque has now decided to boycott any election it cannot win. “We can’t be in the CFCM without having the presidency,” Chems-eddine Hafiz, a senior Grand Mosque official, said at the news conference announcing the boycott. Boubakeur denounced the election procedures as unfair, even “iniquitous” and said the number of delegates should be based on a more complex formula that takes into account the other services the mosque provides (like the GMP’s theological school), the educational level of the imams (the GMP’s come off better here too) and the background of the mosque group (GMP again scores high). Boubakeur has argued for years that the voting procedure had to be reformed, but only a small group of African mosques has supported his view.

When it was founded, the CFCM aroused a lot of interest in Europe as a possible model for other European countries trying to integrate their growing Muslim minorities. Now it looks like it will remain moribund beyond the June election (if it is held) and may never get down to tackling the practical problems these minorities face. Some in the GMP seem to think that Sarkozy will step in at the last minute to ensure Boubakeur a third term, but others doubt the president would do that at a time his popularity ratings are so low.

Do you think European governments should get involved in “managing” Islam like this?

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