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France

Seeking 'Salafists' in French far-right stronghold

© Sarah Leduc

Text by Sarah LEDUC

Latest update : 2013-10-12

After a strong showing for the far right in the first round of a by-election earlier this month, some locals in the southern French town of Brignoles say they are protecting themselves against a “Salafist threat”. FRANCE 24 went to investigate.

The battle against the so-called ‘Islamisation’ of France has long been a rallying cry of the country’s National Front (FN) party and other far-right groups.

But the small, sleepy town of Brignoles in the south of France seems an unlikely place to find extremists supposedly bent on imposing Sharia law and Islamic customs on France.

Nevertheless, it was here that, on October 6, the FN won a shock victory in the first round of a local by-election with 40.4 percent of the vote, partly by playing on locals’ fears of what they see as the growing influence of Islam on French society.

“You realize there is a niqab shop in Brignoles?” says a local man named Michel. “We’ve seen it all!”

The shop he speaks of is now closed, while it is unclear whether Michel is really referring to the full-face Muslim veil, which leaves just the eyes visible, or a less conservative head-scarf. 

Such garments are rarely seen on the quiet streets of Brignoles; according to the mayor, Claude Gilardo, the number of women who have been caught wearing the niqab, which has been recently banned in France, comes to a grand total of two.

But, in the midst of a hard-fought election, facts like these seem to have little bearing.

‘Beards and white tunics’

Passing by a group of local National Front activists in the town centre, an elderly couple stop for a chat.

“Thank you!” the man tells the campaigners, "I feel I am no longer in France ... with all these Salafists,” referring to the strict Sunni Muslim movement.

Surprised, we ask him what he means.

“You know, those with the beards and white tunics,” he laughs.

In search of “these Salafists”, we speak to Mohammed Rgoud, the imam of one of the town’s two mosques. An Algerian immigrant who took French nationality, he wears a well-brushed beard but no tunic. He is also a staunch defender of secularism and refuses to display his religious beliefs in public.

When asked about the possibility of Salafists in Brignoles, Rgoud raises his eyebrows, wearily. He is unhappy at the spotlight the election has placed on the FN and the views of some of its supporters, which he feels are not representative of the majority of the town’s residents.

“I am a French Muslim, I’ve lived in Brignoles for 42 years and I’ve never had a problem,” he says. “No, people here are not really National Front supporters."

If more people had bothered to vote (the turnout of the first round was just 33 percent), the FN would not have won, says Rgoud.

“The people reap what they sow,” he concludes.

In the hope it may shed more light on Brignoles’ mysterious Salafist movement, we go in search of the town’s other mosque, which a mayor’s aide tells us attracts younger, more radical worshippers.

“If you can’t find it, ask a young man with a beard,” she says.

Despite the advice, even finding the Rue Saint-Joseph, where the mosque is located, proves a challenge.

“Are you looking for the convent?” an elderly woman asks. We tell her no, we are trying to find the mosque.

“Oh, I don’t know it … and I’ve lived here for 50 years.”

‘They do no understand Islam’

The Mosquée de l’Unicité finally reveals itself by chance on a winding street in the centre of the old town. The only person there is a young man painting the front of the mosque’s small prayer room, which welcomes around 20 people a day. He is also sporting a beard, but not a tunic.

Before long, he starts asking the questions. “What do you think about people who blow themselves up?” he says. “I’ll tell you, they do not understand Islam.”

Preferring to remain anonymous, the 27-years-old says he has lived his entire life in Brignoles and, according to him, the fear of Islam has little to do with the presence of Muslims in the town, but is instead the fault of the media.

“It’s you, on TV, who are always showing the terrorists,” he says.

He is vaguely aware of the talk of the FN’s strong showing at the polls, but it is not something that seems to surprise or frighten him.

“My neighbour told me this morning he voted for the FN,” he says. “We say hello to each other everyday. So, you see, he’s not really racist.”

As in the first round, he does not plan to take part in next Sunday’s second vote.

Our search for Brignoles’s Salafists, meanwhile, proves unfruitful.

This is the second of a three-part report on Brignoles ahead of the second-round cantonal election on October 13.

Date created : 2013-10-12

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