French Muslim Council in troubled waters

On June 8, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) will be holding critical leadership elections. But fractious internal and external power struggles are threatening France’s largest Muslim umbrella organisation.


Just days ahead of the June 8 leadership elections for the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), organisations representing France’s Muslim community are vying with each other for legitimacy.


Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Grand Mosque and a symbol of the old Muslim establishment with strong ties to Algeria, has announced that he would not stand for elections.


Boubakeur, who has presided over the institution since its inception in 2002, has thrown in the towel, as he is faced with an election procedure that favours Moroccan opponents.


“Dalil Boubakeur was twice named head of the CFCM because of French government backing. Today, the government does not support him anymore,” says Franck Frégosi, research scholar at the Paris-based CNRS institute and former advisor to the French Interior Ministry concerning Muslim affairs.


Though Algerians constitute the most significant part of the Muslim population in France (1,750,000 out of an estimated 5 million French Muslims), it is mostly the Moroccan community that frequents the country’s mosques. As CFCM voting rights are awarded to mosque networks according to the floor space of their prayer areas, the election system should, in principle, be advantageous for Moroccan organisations.


A 'diplomatic affair'


The crisis at the CFCM reflects an important political turn in France’s official policy on Islam. The representation of Muslims in the country is a diplomatic affair – France ‘imports’ imams from Muslim countries with which it shares partnerships. Furthermore, Muslim places of worship in France are financed by foreign governments, and not by French funds.


“For a long time, the French government has been subcontracting Muslim affairs to the Algerian government,” explains Jonathan Laurence, research scholar at the Washington-based Brookings Institution and co-author of “Integrating Islam in France”.


“We are witnessing the last phase of foreign government control over Islam in France,” says Laurence, who believes the current crisis is a mere obstacle on the path of integrating Islam in France.


Frégosi notes that the Algerian and Moroccan consulates put pressure on religious associations to influence their votes politically. “For those who are not French citizens, this influence can be a determining factor,” he explains. For Frégosi, the CFCM’s representativeness is “confiscated by the influence of foreign governments.”


Despite repeated attempts, the Algerian and Moroccan embassies in Paris refused to comment on the issue.

A symbol for France's Muslim community


The CFCM was created by then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy in 2003, not long after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and at a time when the banning of the Islamic veil in French public schools sparked a controversy inside and outside France. The organisation, which was initially created to attend to the practical needs of Muslims, is contested today by both the Muslim ‘base’ and by French political commentators.


Frégosi deplores the fact that the CFCM failed to vote unanimously on two main issues that stirred the Muslim community in France in recent times – the banning of the veil in public schools and the publication by French satirical weekly "Charlie Hebdo" of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. “It is a strong symbol that gives Muslims an official body to communicate with those in power;” says the author of “Islam and Secularism”.


Laurence however maintains that “it is not the CFCM’s role to comment on affairs other than what concerns religious practice”. He believes the more practical aspects of religion fall under the domain of the French Interior Ministry, which does not hold any dialogue with religious communities on political issues. Laurence feels that representation of French Muslims should take place on a political level at the French Assembly. “But political parties are wary of placing candidates of foreign origin on their electoral lists,” he says.


A controversial track-record


Since its founding, the CFCM’s track record has been controversial. The organisation’s official mission is to cater to French Muslims’ needs related to religious practice, such as nominating priests in prisons, hospitals and the army, as well as designating Muslim areas in cemeteries.


Nevertheless, many criticise the fact that the CFCM is in a deadlock due to fights between member federations. “Young people consider it an organisation of elites whose priority is to be heard by ministers,” says Frégosi.


Soufari Benabdellah, president of the Regional Muslim Council (CRCM) in the Alsace region is one such young person. His website, created to combat the “CFCM’s lack of communication”, regularly criticises the latter organisation.


According to Benabdellah, the federations are more concerned with their clout on a national level than with questions that Muslims are really concerned about, like, for example, the rules governing “halal” food, or the organisation of pilgrimages to Mecca. The young president of the CRCM, who claims to be closely associated with the Paris mosque, will not be standing for the June 8 elections, a decision, he maintains, was taken before Boubakeur’s boycott announcement.


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