FaithWorld

Losers all around in French Muslim council election

(Mohamed Moussaoui (4th R), President of the French Muslim council, speaks to the media after a meeting at the prime minister's office in Paris April 26, 2010. UOIF leader Fouad Alaoui is second from the right in the light suit//Gonzalo Fuentes)

 

Even the winner risks ending up among the losers in France’s Muslim council election on Sunday as the organisation meant to represent Islam here is torn apart by rivalries, boycotts and bitter attacks. Incumbent Mohammed Moussaoui will be returned as head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), but a boycott by the two rival Muslim federations competing with his Rally of French Muslims (RMF) group makes the victory a hollow one.

The campaign has also fuelled the ethnic tensions crippling French Islam, which is split among factions backed by Algeria, Morocco and Turkey and others who oppose any meddling from the Muslim countries that they or their forefathers left behind.

“This CFCM will start off an empty shell and continue to run on empty,” Kamel Kabtane, rector of the Grand Mosque of Lyon, told Lyon Capitale magazine after announcing he was boycotting the election. “It risks dying a quiet death.”

The curious voting method used, which allocates electoral college delegates to each federation according to the total floor space of its mosques around the country, was the reason Moussaoui’s rivals gave for the boycott.

French far-right star compares praying Muslims to Nazi occupiers

prayers (Photo: Muslims in Perpignan pray in public after a Muslim youth was murdered, May 28, 2005/Georges Bartoli)

Marine Le Pen has put paid to the idea she would put a softer face on France’s National Front for elections in 2012 with anti-Muslim comments that have aroused a storm of criticism. Le Pen, the likely next far-right challenger for the French presidency, compared overflowing mosques in France with the Nazi occupation — remarks indicative of a drift to the right in parts of Europe that could let the National Front eat into support for the ruling conservative UMP party in 2012.

Le Pen, the frontrunner to succeed her father Jean-Marie Le Pen as head of the party, made the comments on a television show last Thursday with about 3.4 million viewers watching. On Monday she dismissed any suggestion of a gaffe. “My comments were absolutely not a blunder, but a completely thought-out analysis,” she told a news conference, adding she was merely saying out loud what everyone thought privately.

le pen 1Given support of 12 to 14 percent in recent opinion polls, Marine Le Pen is regarded as more electable than her father, who was convicted in 1990 for inciting racial hatred. But her remarks suggest that far from moderating the party line, she will go all out to outgun conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy to secure the slice of the French electorate that opposes high immigration.

After scarves in schools, France mulls ban on burqas and niqabs

niqab-1

Pakistani Islamist women activists in Lahore, 5 Feb 2009/Mohsin Raza

French politicians seem ready once again to make a political issue out of Muslim women’s clothes. A group of 58 legislators has called for a parliamentary enquiry into what they said was a growing number of women wearing “the burqa and the niqab on the national territory. Their initiative comes five years after France banned the Muslim headscarf from French state schools. President Nicolas Sarkozy hasn’t tipped his hand yet, but his government’s spokesman, Luc Chatel, said on Friday that Paris could opt for a law “if, after this enquiry, we see that burqa wearing was forced, which is to say it was contrary to our republican principles.”

“There are people in this country who are walking around in portable prisons,” said André Gerin, a Communist legislator who was behind the initiative. More than 40 legislators from Sarkozy’s ruling centre-right party were also signatories. “We have to be able to open a loyal and frank dialogue with all Muslims about the question of the place of Islam in this country … taking into account the slide towards fundamentalism (of some Muslims),” Gerin told France Info radio.

The politicians’ appeal argued that burqas and niqabs violated the principle of gender equality: “If the Islamic headscarf amounted to a distinctive sign of belonging to a religion, here we have the extreme stage of this practice. It is no longer just an ostentatious show of religion, but an attack on women’s freedom and the affirmation of femininity. Clothed in a burqa or niqab, she is in a situation of reclusion, exclusion and inadmissible humiliation. Her very existence is negated.”

French faith leaders work to contain any Gaza backlash

Whenever the Palestinian issue heats up, the temperature rises in the gritty neighbourhoods the French call the banlieues (suburbs). These areas, best known for the low-cost housing projects that postwar city planners planted out there, are a vibrant and edgy mix of local working class, recent immigrants and minorities now in France for several generations. (Photo: Police survey housing project in Paris suburb, 1 June 2006/Victor Tonelli)

Among those groups are Muslims and Jews, many of whose families came from the same parts of North Africa. About 7-8 years ago, at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, some of the far more numerous Muslims took out their anger at Israel on their Jewish neighbours. The official reaction against that wave of anti-Semitism was slow in coming back then, but leaders in France today — especially leaders of the main religious groups — seem determined to do their best to head that off this time around.

They have their work cut out for them. According to a French Jewish Students’ Union (UEJF) list (here in French), there have been 46 anti-Semitic acts in France since Dec. 27, when Israel began its bombardment of Gaza.  That includes several firebombs and several Jews beaten by thugs. Muslim and Jewish leaders have already issued several calls for calm. In some cities such as Strasbourg and Lyon, they have joined the mayor and their Catholic colleagues. After meeting President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday evening, the national heads of the Muslim, Jewish and Catholic communities said they would produce a joint appeal soon. See my story on this here.

See how and why France’s Muslim Council doesn’t work

CFCM leaders representing (from left) Muslims from Turkey, mixed groups, Morocco and Algeria, 22 June 2008/Gonzalo FuentesAs the official umbrella group for Europe’s largest Muslim minority, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) should play an important role in integrating Islam into French society. In fact, it hardly has any influence at all. The CFCM is so split by internal differences that it can hardly agree on when Ramadan should start or end. The link above is to the Wikipedia entry on the CFCM because the council has not been able to get its act together sufficiently to produce its own website.

France 24, the all-news TV station Paris launched two years ago as a kind of “French CNN,” has produced an excellent report on the CFCM — “Divisions within French Islam deepen at Ramadan.” It zooms in on the rivalry between Algerian and Moroccan Muslim groups that has crippled the council from the start. In one of the France 24 logomost telling scenes in the report, the Algerian and Moroccan groups meet separately at the (Algerian-run) Grand Mosque of Paris before a joint session where they argue about how to decide when Ramadan ends. The discussion got so heated that journalists were asked to leave the room.

The report also has interviews with leading figures in the CFCM as well as observers and critics. In all, an insightful report into the politics of Islam in France today.

New French Muslim chief on the “virginity lie” case

CFCM head Mohammed Moussaoui (r) and Fouad Alaoui (l), 22 June 28/Gonzalo FuentesMohammed Moussaoui, the newly elected head of France’s Muslim council CFCM, has lost no time in criticising the case of a Muslim husband who had his marriage annulled because his wife had lied about being a virgin. The “virginity lie” case caused uproar in France, where critics warned against letting religious issues creep into civil law. Under public pressure, Justice Minister Rachida Dati (herself a Muslim who had a marriage annulled), dropped her original positive assessment and had the decision overturned. The couple remains married until September, when the case will be considered again.

Asked about the case, Moussaoui told the Paris daily Le Figaro: “These people confuse customs and religion. Chastity is recommended for the man and the woman, but it is not a condition for a Muslim marriage. A man loves a women as she is, virgin or not.”

National Muslim leaders in France were notably silent about the issue when it flared up. One of the few who did say anything, Fouad Aloui of the Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF), was the main rival to Moussaoui in the recent election as CFCM president. All he said was: “This is not a religious case. It is a legal decision based on the law, so it is up to the judge to decide.” That sounds like an indirect approval of the decision, although it must be said he sounded quite reluctant to talk about it at all (here France Info audio in French).

New, younger leaders for France’s Muslims and Jews

This is such a coincidence that some might suspect it wasn’t one. France’s Muslim and Jewish minorities, both the largest of their kind in Europe, elected new leaders on Sunday. In both cases, they opted for younger leaders who promised to play a more active role in their communities. We may see and hear more from these two groups than in the past.

Mohammed Moussaoui, 22 June 2008/Gonzalo FuentesThe French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) chose Mohammed Moussaoui, 44, of the Moroccan-backed Rally of French Muslims group as its new president. Its outgoing president, Dalil Boubakeur, 67, boycotted the election. This is a secular post, so Moussaoui is the top Muslim representative in France, not a theological authority. Although he is an imam, his “day job” is mathematics lecturer at the University of Avignon. After five years of paralysis at the CFCM, it was a breath of fresh air to see him publish an action programme in advance and pledge to reform the council. We covered his election here and the first round of the voting on June 8 here. There are about five million Muslims in France, around 8 percent of the population, and Islam is the second-largest religion here after Roman Catholicism. Moussaoui was born in Morocco and came to France for university studies.

The Rabbi and The Cardinal — Bernheim (l) and Barbarin (r)Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, 56, won election as the new grand rabbi of France, replacing Joseph Sitruk, 63, who had held the post for 21 years and sought reelection. Bernheim is an orthodox rabbi who has frequently spoken out in public on a wide range of issues. A former university chaplain, he is rabbi of the largest Paris synagogue, the Synagogue de la Victoire, and has been active in dialogue with Christians. He recently published “Le rabbin et le cardinal” (The Rabbi and The Cardinal), a long conversation with Lyon Cardinal Philippe Barbarin. This commitment to dialogue earned him some criticism during the election campaign from more traditionalist voices in an unusually lively campaign (see this pre-poll article in The Forward). In French, check out reports in Le Monde and RTL radio (audio and text). There are about 600,000 Jews in France.

After long delay, French Muslim council may get down to work

Things seem to be looking up at the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). The first round of elections for its new national leadership went off well on Sunday — the second round is due on June 22 — and several leaders of member groups expressed confidencethe council can finally get down to work. This will be a revolution in itself. Since it was created in 2003 under heavy pressure from the then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (now M. le Président), the CFCM has been almost completely paralysed by internal rivalries. Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur, 3 May 2008/Tom HeneghanThe reason for hope this time around is that the government didn’t choose winner in advance, as it did in the 2003 and 2005 elections. Instead of naming Paris Grand MosqueRector Dalil Boubakeur the next CFCM president before the vote no matter what his mosque network’s result was, the government let the Muslims decide for themselves who should run the council. The Moroccan-backed Rally of French Muslims (RMF) mosque network came out clearly ahead and its candidate for CFCM president, Mohammed Moussaoui, looks set to win the top job on June 22. Here’s a post-election interviewwith Moussaoui (in French) where he lists his priorities as religious training for imams and chaplains, mosque construction, consumer protection for hajis, better conditions for Eid slaughterhouses and Muslim sections in cemeteries. Without ever mentioning the record of the CFCM to date, he shows all that has to be done. The back story to the CFCM election is fascinating. Back in 2003, Sarkozy insisted that Boubakeur be president in order to:- Ensure a moderate head of a prestigious mosque headed the CFCM rather than the supposed “radicals” of the Union of French Muslim Organisations (UOIF), which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood and Work closely with Algeria, which supports the Grand Mosque and its network, the main mosque network for Algerian Muslims in France.

The Grand Mosque network came in third in the 2003 and 2005 elections, so the UOIF and the Moroccan mosques — first represented by the National Federation of French Muslims (FNMF) and now the RMF — had serious problems with this interference. Although Sarkozy is now president, it seems he did not bring the same priorities into the Elysée Palace. The current approach shows less worry about the UOIF, which is not really all that “radical” after all, and a tilt towards Morocco. Press reports say Rabat has also become more interested in influencing its emigrants in Europe after Moroccans were implicated in the Theo van Gogh murder and the Madrid train bombings. Anyway, back to the CFCM elections. Once Boubakeur pulled out of the race in supposed protest against the voting mechanism accepted in the two earlier elections, the vote was free for the winners to be the group that actually won the most votes. The Moroccans came in a strong first at 43.2 percent, far ahead of the UOIF at 30.2 percent. This satisfied the Moroccans and smaller groups that will probably ally with them, but left the UOIF very dissatisfied. Now it is clear they are stuck in second place and they don’t like that. So they’re calling for a rotating presidency to let them get the top job some day. Rhone-Alpes CRCM chairman Azzedine GaciJudging from what RMF President Anouar Kbibech said after the results were in (RFI audio here in French), the RMF plans to actually tackle practical problems for Muslims in France. The regional council (CRCM) in Rhône-Alpes, the region in and around Lyon, showed up the national council by producing a 74-page report on its progresson such practical issues over the past three years. The pragmatic regional leader there, Azzedine Gaci (picture at left), has set a high standard for the new boys in Paris to meet. One of the first would be to set up their own website … One fly in the ointment is that the election confirmed the influence of what the French call “consular Islam” — the influence that the so-called countries of origin have on French Muslims. The switch in leadership from the Paris Grand Mosque to the RMF also means a shift in influence from Algeria to Morocco. Turkey has a similar link to ethnic Turks in France, but they are a smaller group (12.7 percent in the election). For all the government’s talk of creating an Islam de France, it persists in fostering this consular Islam.When it was launched, the CFCM aroused interest around Europe because it seemed to be the most developed form of official representation for Islam in a European country. It looked like some kind of answer to the question ‘who speaks for Islam?’ But its immobility over the years made it drop off the radar screen.Representatives attend the ‘Conference on Islam’ in Berlin, 2 May 2007/Tobias SchwarzThere are a mixed bag of efforts to create or maintain Muslim councils in other countries, such as the “Islam Conference” in Berlin pictured at right. Here’s a roundup of them by H. A. Hellyer. Each country has a different approach and there doesn’t seem to be any one-size-fits-all solution.How do you think a Muslim council in a European country should be organised?

Uncertain future for France’s Muslim council

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.