Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Elections for French Muslim Council Give Alarming Result for Jewish Groups

April 28, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

French Jews may have been hoping that the election of the first council to represent France’s 5 million-strong Muslim community would act as a moderating influence on its members.

They received a rude awakening earlier this month.

Representatives from more than 900 mosques across France who cast their ballots for the new Muslim Council delivered a stinging slap to moderate candidates backed by the government.

The result was a personal defeat for the man seen as the modern face of French Islam, Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of Paris’ Grand Mosque.

The main winner was the National Federation of French Muslims, a group closely linked to the large Moroccan community in France and which receives financial and political backing from Rabat. The Moroccans are regarded as more conservative than the more integrated Algerians although they are more mainstream than the fundamentalist French Union of Islamic Organizations.

Candidates from the union established themselves as the second largest grouping with 14 seats.

Trailing behind came candidates backed by the Paris Mosque, which only succeeded in placing six of its supporters on the council.

The result is particularly troubling for the Jewish community, since it comes as anti-Semitic incidents are at their highest level in more than a decade and the vast majority are carried out by Muslim youths.

French Jews and government officials had hoped the election of moderate elements to the council would provide Boubakeur with increased authority to take on the more radical elements within the Muslim community.

Almost 200 years after Napoleon set up the consistorial system as a means to fully integrate France’s Jewish community, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy decided that the time had arrived to “bring French Islam out of the garages and basements.”

Sarkozy’s intention was to provide a representative voice for the Muslim community, as well as to assure it of state support for services such as the provision of mosques and halal meat, and burial rights within municipal cemeteries.

Moreover, he had sought to unite the Muslim community around Boubakeur and diminish the role played by foreign-born preachers, whose more fundamentalist brand of Islam is taking root in mosques in working-class suburbs around the big cities.

Sarkozy’s plan was based around Boubakeur to such an extent that he was guaranteed the post of council president, whatever the election results.

Apart from Boubakeur’s moderation, the Paris Mosque also is closely associated with France’s largely integrated Algerian community. President Jacques Chirac had promised his Algerian counterpart during a recent state visit that the Algerians would maintain their traditional hegemony on the new council.

For the government and the Jewish community, the most worrying sign was the second-place showing by the French Union of Islamic Organizations, an organization with strong links to the Muslim Brotherhood fundamentalist group.

Such fears were exarcerbated by the union’s reaction to the election. In fact, union officials said, the group’s success was even greater than it appeared.

“A lot of the Moroccans elected on the” National Federation of French Muslims “lists are closer to us than to the” federation, Lhaj Thami Breeze, president of the union, told a recent conference of his organization.

The union’s conference, which had the feel of a victory rally, was attended by Sarkozy, a clear indication that the government is aware where real power now lies in the Muslim community.

The final makeup of the Muslim Council’s General Assembly remains unclear because there will be runoff elections in certain areas.

Nevertheless, leading moderates such as the imam of Marseille, who has appeared on platforms together with Jewish leaders at rallies against anti-Semitism, and the rector of Lyon’s Grand Mosque who attended a service at a synagogue in the city’s suburbs last year following a fire-bombing incident — are unlikely to win.

And the lack of support for Boubakeur, as well as other candidates who have attempted to reach out to the Jewish community during the recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks, deeply concerns Jewish leaders.

Officially, Jewish organizations were supportive of the moves to integrate the Muslim community, though they largely declined to comment after the elections for fear of further harming the more moderate groups on the council.

According to Bernard Kasovitch, who is responsible for relations with the Muslim community for the CRIF umbrella organization of secular French Jews, the poor showing of candidates supported by Boubakeur proved that in the current climate it is difficult for moderate candidates to win support in their own community.

“We are ready to be partners with the Muslim community, but it is important to wait and see how they work together among themselves,” Kasovitch told JTA. “Like most people in France, including Sarkozy, we are afraid of violence and extremism.”

Moreover, the key test for the new council is how it adapts to the secular values of the French state, he said.

“They have to choose between whether they want to be guided by the sharia” — Islamic law — “or by the principles of the republic,” Kasovitch said. “They should also be careful not to choose the wrong target. I tell them that Jews are not against Muslims, but rather that we want the same things.”

Perhaps the first indication that the union is not prepared to tone down its demands came at its conference last week.

At first, Sarkozy received a rapturous ovation for his backing of the Muslim Council. But he was widely jeered when he said he would insist that Muslim women be photographed bareheaded for their national identity cards.

The union position also contrasts sharply with that of Boubakeur, who has called on French Muslims “to live with the times.”

“It’s not because the French law says so that we should change our behavior, but because the world itself is changing,” Boubakeur said.

For his part, Kasovitch, who with Boubakeur co-authored a book that promotes tolerance and understanding between French Jews and Muslims, said the union was “choosing the wrong fight.”

“The issue of head covering within state institutions is a deliberate provocation. The government is not against religious expression,” Kasovitch said. “It’s a shame because there are so many things that need to be done for the Muslim community.”

Ultimately, the elections have presented a vision of French Muslims that is considerably more extremist in tone than either the Jewish community or Sarkozy had hoped for.

Nevertheless, Sarkozy was quick to reassure the Jewish community.

“The danger” of extremism “would have been there even if we had done nothing,” he said. “It is important that the republic engages in dialogue with Muslims — and that, in itself, is a factor in maintaining a peaceful climate.”

But “this mutual recognition also gives us more latitude to fight against those imams who break the law in calling for violence and anti-Semitism,” Sarkozy warned. “They will be expelled.”

Recommended from JTA