Sarkozy’s Islam debate opens rift in French ruling party
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to hold a national debate on the role of Islam in French society has opened a rare rift in his centre-right party, damaging his credibility ahead of a presidential election next year. Fears about the role of Islam in France’s secular society have become a key campaign theme in the wake of controversies — largely fed by the far-right — over Muslims praying in the street, halal-only fast-food restaurants and full-face veils.
With Sarkozy intent on keeping moderate voters from defecting to the far-right, he has encouraged the ruling UMP party to hold a public debate starting on April 5 to discuss the compatibility between Islam and France’s secular values.
But weeks before the debate has begun, and with little clue as to its format, dissent within the UMP over the wisdom of the idea has hurt Sarkozy’s credibility, hinting that his leadership of the party is less than ironclad. “If this debate were to be focused only on Islam, if it were to lead to a stigmatisation of Muslims, then I would oppose it,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon said this week on RTL radio.
Division in the ruling UMP group, usually more disciplined than the Socialist opposition, reflects poorly on Sarkozy as he tries to shore up his popularity from record lows in the face of competition from a resurgent far-right National Front party.
“This (Islam) is a core issue … but the way the debate is organised gives the impression of being too rushed, poorly controlled,” said Jerome Fourquet of the IFOP polling institute. “In terms of the dynamics of the election, that is not good.”
In January, an IFOP poll showed that more than two thirds of French and German people considered the integration of Muslims into their societies a failure, and pollsters have identified anxiety about Islam as a key theme in 2012.
Sarkozy is taking a risky bet by trying to steal Islam as a campaign theme from the National Front after another national debate on national identity, also the president’s idea, failed to win over many far-right voters, Fourquet said.
Meanwhile, National Front leader Marine Le Pen has been gaining points in the polls for pounding home the idea that Islam has become an encroaching presence in French society. “People may ask, why not just go for Marine Le Pen?” Fourquet said, referring to voters in the 2012 election.
In a chaotic prelude, reactions in the UMP to the debate have ranged from sceptical to frankly critical. The idea is “useless and dangerous”, former Sarkozy advisor Patrick Devedjian wrote in a blog post. It would be a “mistake to challenge secularism”, said Senate speaker Gerard Larcher. “Let’s beware of playing up to fears,” he said last week on i>Tele news channel. “Let’s beware of weakening secular values in a poorly prepared debate that would be poorly led for political opportunity, when it’s an essential topic.”
Sarkozy planted the seed for a debate when he said last month he did not want to see Muslims praying on French streets. UMP spokesman Jean-Francois Cope later said the government would open a conference on Islam and secular values on April 5.
Asked about the debate’s format, a UMP spokesman had no immediate comment. The debate on Islam will likely resemble the national identity debate and include ‘town-hall’ style events and an internet forum for proposing solutions. But even in Sarkozy’s inner circle, support has been muted. Alain Juppe, appointed foreign minister in a Sunday reshuffle, said the debate needed to be “kept under control”.
The only politician to welcome the idea was Le Pen, who mocked the UMP by saying that a debate on Islam would help her party to win 25 percent of the vote during the election.
One issue the UMP intends to address is public financing for mosques after the controversy over street prayers shone a light on the lack of suitable mosque space for Muslims in France. A 1905 law separating church and state forbids the use of taxpayer money to support any faith. But the majority Roman Catholic Church and other faiths enjoy an indirect subsidy through state maintanence of many of their buildings that are considered part of the national heritage. Muslim leaders say they have no such advantage and are not rich enough to fund the building of new mosques by themselves.
Fillon has said a debate on public financing for mosques is “worth having”. But National Assembly President Bernard Accoyer has dismissed the idea as politically toxic: “The risk of it getting out of hand is too great,” he told La Croix. When housing minister Benoist Apparu floated the idea of changing the 1905 law to allow some subsidies, a group of 28 centre-right deputies threatened to split from the ruling party.
“I will not join in a debate on Islam,” the hard-charging UMP deputy Jacques Myard, author of a book on secularism in France, told the i>Tele news channel. “More than ever, we need to keep secularism in public and religion in private … It’s the only way to protect religious peace.”
by Nick Vinocur