Boycott and protests set stage for French Islam debate

By Reuters Staff
April 4, 2011
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(Muslims demonstrate against the debate about secularism and Islam proposed by the UMP party, April 2, 2011. The placard reads,"French and Muslims, where is the problem?"/Benoit Tessier)

France’s ruling conservatives are pressing ahead with a public debate on Islam and secularism on Tuesday despite criticism that it is an excuse to pander to far-right voters ahead of a general election next year. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party said in December that it would host a public forum to address fears about Islam’s role in French society, following controversy over Muslim street prayers, halal-only restaurants and full-face Islamic veils.

But a hail of criticism from religious leaders and some party members has forced the UMP to downsize the event and fight off accusations that a focus on Islam will provide cover for the airing of anti-Muslim prejudices among the French.

“They can’t cancel it now,” said Jean-Francois Doridot, an analyst at the Ipsos polling agency. “It’s a sort of trap that is closing around the UMP, and they are trying to get themselves out of it one way or another.”

Amid sharp criticism from religious leaders, party officials have bickered over the need to hold a debate at all, France’s largest Muslim group has announced a boycott, and Prime Minister Francois Fillon declined his invitation to attend.

The guest list for Tuesday’s debate has yet to be confirmed, but Interior Minister Claude Gueant — who came under fire recently for saying the French “no longer felt at home” — will attend, as will party spokesman Jean-Francois Cope.

With France’s controversial ban on full-face veils going into effect next week, Gueant defended the debate by saying that some Muslim practices were problematic and needed to be addressed. “In 1905, there were very few Muslims in France, today they are between five and six million,” Gueant told journalists on a trip to western France. “This growth in the number of faithful and some behaviours pose a problem. It’s obvious that the street prayers are shocking to a number of our compatriots.”

Read the full story by Nick Vinocur here.

In French, see L’UMP propose 26 mesures pour concilier islam et laïcité by Yann Le Guernigou.

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