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Islam’s place in France set to dominate right-wing presidential primary

Pascal Lachenaud, AFP
5 min

The contest to pick a presidential nominee among France’s right-wing camp is shaping up as a battle between former president Nicolas Sarkozy and Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé, with Islam’s place in France the hot issue of the primaries.


Around a dozen members of the main opposition Les Républicains party (formerly UMP) have declared themselves candidates in the November primary, which is widely expected to come down to a duel between Sarkozy, who lost his re-election bid in 2012, and Juppé, a defence and foreign minister under the former president.

Sarkozy unofficially kicked off his campaign this week by announcing his candidacy in a new book, with Juppé expected to dive into the primary waters with a speech on August 27. His talk is all the more anticipated since Juppé, the frontrunner according to opinion polls, was largely absent from public view this summer, even as France reeled from a deadly truck attack in Nice that killed 86 people during Bastille Day celebrations and the slaying of a Catholic priest in the town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray.

Both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group. Juppé was vacationing in Quebec at the time of the attacks and then later travelled to French Polynesia, places less burdened at the present time with the threat of radical Islam than in mainland France.

Back home the fear and exasperation has nevertheless become all too palpable. Presidential elections are just eight months away, and it appears France’s entire political class is now faced with one salient question: In order to stem the rise of terrorist violence and promote peaceful co-existence among citizens, should France give its Muslim community more or less latitude in their religious practices?

Some think more freedom could help Muslims better feel at home in France and counter recruiting propaganda by the IS group and other extremists, who regularly claim the country “persecutes” its Muslim population. But others argue in favour of a stronger clampdown of Islamic practices deemed too ostentatious, a position already reflected in the banning of “burkinis” or full-body swimsuits in a handful of French beaches this summer – and legal move that was later overturned by France’s top administrative court.

Looking to Canada

Juppé is known for supporting the former of the two views. In a 2014 book he co-authored with 12 other conservative political heavyweights (Les 12 travaux de l’opposition), he coined the term “happy identity” (l’identité heureuse). It was meant to counter the “unhappy identity” (L’identité malheureuse) theory set forth by Alain Finkielkraut. The divisive philosopher has blamed the so-called decay of French national identity on several modern trends, including immigration without assimilation.

In the book, Juppé defended the need to “integrate” immigrants into French society rather than forcing them to “assimilate”. The veteran politician argued that it was both unrealistic and impractical to ask new immigrants to turn their back completely on their native cultures.

Juppé went so far as to recommend that France find some "reasonable accommodation" with Islam. Borrowed from Canada, a country the Bordeaux mayor lived in for many years, the concept consists of adjusting some of the established rules in society in order to provide more opportunities, or equity, for new arrivals in that society. In France, reasonable accommodation could lead to a loosening of staunch secularism in order to help Muslims enjoy greater participation in French society.

But in recent months, and particularly in his new book “Everything for France” (Tout pour la France), Sarkozy has challenged Juppé on the subject. “There is no happy identity when thousands of French people, born and raised in France, come to hate their homeland so much… There is no happy identity when the laws are flouted to such a point. There is no happy identity when we accept ‘reasonable’ accommodations in order to appease the situation,” Sarkozy writes.

Competing visions

Many are now waiting to see if Juppé will continue to defend his multicultural and inclusive view of society in a country that has been regularly rattled by Islamic-linked terrorism since the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015.

If he does, it will be difficult for Juppé to avoid a messy showdown with Sarkozy. Le Havre mayor Philip Edward, one of Juppé’s closest allies, last week suggested the stage was set for such a scenario. He said he looked forward to “good debate” that would pit Juppé’s “confident” vision against Sarkozy’s gloom and doom.

In the opposing camp, François Baroin, a former finance minister who is tipped as Sarkozy’s prime minister should he win the 2017 election, blasted the “happy identity” as pure naiveté.

It’s not an unfamiliar attack for Juppé, who last June rebuked Sarkozy loyalists in the following blog post: “They will call me naive... my long experience on the ground helps me avoid this trap. I know that the France I dream of is not France as it is today, not all of it. I see that France harbours doubt, pain, anger. We must provide answers to these real problems”.

While Juppé wants to promote France’s “diversity” in order to protect its “unity”, it appears Sarkozy will double-down on reaffirming the country’s “Christian roots”. Juppé has stated that a reading of the Koran is “compatible with French democracy”; Sarkozy wants Muslims to blend into society – meaning to adopt all of France’s cultural habits.

But neither candidate has succeeded in putting theory into practice, and is therefore open to attacks. As Foreign Minister in 2011, Juppé initiated talks with the Muslim Brotherhood, an initiative that eventually failed after the Arab Spring. But Sarkozy, who has harsh words for Salafist and Wahhabist manifestations in France, may have trouble explaining his efforts to cosy up to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who more than any leader has bankrolled these archaic versions of Islam across the globe.

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