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Sarkozy sets sights on defining role of Islam in a secular France

Text by Tony Todd

Latest update : 2011-02-19

Following last year’s controversial ban on the full Islamic veil in public places, French President Nicolas Sarkozy now wants to formalise the relationship between Islam and France's fiercely secular state.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has set his sights on the role of Islam in a secular France, which looks set to become a major theme ahead of the 2012 presidential elections.

Sarkozy said Tuesday that he wants to launch a debate in April on the role and influence of the country’s second-biggest religion.

The call for a discussion on Islam follows comments Sarkozy made last week that “multiculturalism is not working” and is seen as a bid to win back voters from the far-right National Front party.
“There is a growing gulf between the media portrayal of Islam and the preoccupations of the French people,” Sarkozy told members of his conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party at a dinner he hosted this week.
And while it remains unclear whether the president would look to encode the debate’s findings in a new law, one unnamed UMP lawmaker told right-wing daily Le Figaro, “The role of Islam in France is going to be a central issue in the 2012 presidential campaign.”
‘This is a secular country’
Sarkozy told his UMP dinner guests that a refusal to address Islam’s role would lead France down the wrong path. “In the 1980s we were careless about immigration because it was a taboo subject – and now we are paying the price for it,” Sarkozy told the party members dining at the Elysée presidential palace. “The same thing is happening with Islam in France right now.”
“It is out of the question that French society should be influenced by Islam,” he continued. “This is a secular country.”
Sarkozy went on to set a deadline for a final decision on what role religion should play in France: “We need to formalise our position on the role of religions in France once and for all, and I want this to be achieved in 2011.”
Religion and the law
Secularism in France, a country with Catholic roots but a deep-rooted suspicion of religion, has been enforced by law for over a century.
“The Republic does not officially recognise, pay salaries for, nor subsidise any religion,” states a December 1905 law on the separation between church and state.
The law adds: “It is henceforth forbidden to erect or display any religious signs or emblems publicly, and political meetings may not take place in places of worship.”
Legislation in 2004 reinforced this position, by outlawing the display of religious symbols in schools – such as headscarves and crucifixes – as well as the ban introduced last autumn on the wearing of the full Islamic veil in public places.
The law also bans religious processions but does not address prayer meetings in the city streets (some mosques in France have overcrowding issues, thus leading to an overspill into the streets), which is a particular bugbear of the National Front.
“We need to have a debate on prayer meetings in the streets,” Sarkozy told his UMP party faithful, echoing the concerns of the far right. “In a secular country, we cannot tolerate having a public call to prayer.”
Speaking at a rally in Lyon in December, National Front leader Marine Le Pen went even further, comparing prayers in the street to the World War II Nazi “occupation”.
“There are of course no tanks, there are no soldiers, but it is nevertheless an occupation, and it weighs heavily on local residents,” she said.  


Date created : 2011-02-18


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