French Ruling Party Discusses Separation of Church and State

by NIDRA POLLER April 20, 2011
The video of a Koran-burning by an obscure pastor in Gainesville, Florida went viral, spinning all the way to Mazar-i-Sharif (Afghanistan) where, on April 1st, an enraged mob stormed the UNAM (United Nations Assistance Mission) compound, killing 3 UN staff members and 4 Nepalese Gurkha guards, and wounding dozens. Two of the victims were reportedly beheaded. Sensitivity in France to criticism of Islam, Muslims, and/or immigrants does not reach murderous proportions, but controversy has been raging ever since the UMP announced it was holding a debate on laïcité (France’s official separation of church and state). The integrity of President Sarkozy’s government was questioned, the debate was branded a sop to the Front National, petitions circulated and dire predictions were vociferated. The Convention on “Laïcité pour mieux vivre ensemble” [laïcité for getting along together] was held on April 5th at the Pullman Hotel across the street from Gare Montparnasse… and French media lost interest in the whole affair.
Is it because the 26 concrete proposals presented during the 4-hour event belied the lurid accusations smeared ahead of the debate? The proposed measures are clearly not motivated by a fiendish anti-Muslim ideology; they are a concrete political response to authentic issues raised from the ground up. Though Christianity and Judaism were thrown in to keep Islam company when touchy issues tear at the social fabric, Islam was separated out for special consideration in the second half of the Convention.
The modest program of readjustment and reaffirmation of laïcité presented by UMP General Secretary Jean-François Copé will not of course satisfy those who believe that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with democracy and unwilling to get along with Others. France, like other Western European nations, is at a loss on how to repair the damage caused by three decades of misguided immigration-integration policies.
The night before the UMP Convention, SOS Racisme organized a public meeting at the 3rd arrondissement city hall to denounce “The Debate.” The multi-color audience was young, self-righteously indignant, uniform in its ideas and discourse. Excited speakers ranted and raved, spewed venom, made ad hominem attacks, called their opponents filthy racists, demagogues, fascists, enemies of la République, Islamophobes… SOS Racisme claims also to combat anti-Semitism, but it happens that almost every thinker, journalist, community leader, or politician they slammed, including Jean-François Copé, happens to be Jewish. 
This is not an incidental detail. One of the nagging problems posed by Islam in France is the violent anti-Semitism of a significant minority of the Muslim population. The SOS anti-racists who accuse the government of subjecting Muslims, Romas, Africans, and illegal immigrants of all stripes to 1940s style genocidal fascism stubbornly refuse to recognize the scriptural, cultural, and historical origins of contemporary Islamic anti-Semitism in France.
The debate on laïcité, explained Jean-François Copé in his opening remarks to a standing-room only crowd, is one in a series of broad-based studies of issues of concern to citizens that will feed into the party’s legislative program and the presidential candidate’s platform. The abrupt increase in the Muslim population raises specific challenges to the abiding values and standards of French society. It is the role of responsible politicians to formulate rules, regulations and, where necessary, laws to smooth out ruffled relations, he says, and prevent the spread of extremism.
General Petraeus issued an effusive apology for the burning of the “Holy Qu’ran.” The UMP did not bend over backwards that far, but such care was taken to avoid saying, writing, or even thinking anything that could be offensive to Muslims that an uninformed observer might wonder why anyone would imagine that laïcité, a pillar of the French Republic, is under assault.
The debate, strictly speaking, has been going on for months… for decades… and will continue well beyond the 2012 presidential campaign. If Marine LePen, newly elected leader of the Front National, chose the issue of Muslim street prayers to launch her campaign, it is certainly not because she sensed that it is a no-starter totally divorced from the concerns of voters and offensive to their multicultural values..
At the SOS Racisme bash, 3rd arrondissement mayor Pierre Aidenbaum, Dominique Sopo, president of SOS Racisme, Caroline Fourest, fellow of the Anna Lindh Foundation, Arielle Schwab, president of the Jewish Student’s Union (UEJF), Galeb Bencheikh (in praise of Europe’s Muslim heritage), and a scattering of semi-literate student leaders took potshots at President Sarkozy, the UMP, and a rogue’s gallery of Islamophobes. Indifferent to the simplest logic, they blamed Nicolas Sarkozy for espousing “nauseating” (the French “nauséabonde” is more eloquent) arguments in order to “siphon off” the votes of the Front National, while simultaneously arguing that French voters are not interested in stigmatizing Islam; they want social justice, wealth redistribution, low-cost housing, free education. The indignant anti-racists consider people who vote or intend to vote Front National as contaminated. Their vote cannot be reappropriated, it is indelibly stained. Talk about stigmatizing!
Over 200 journalists covered the Convention. They did not all see and hear the same thing. State-owned France-Info radio reported that Chief Rabbi Bernheim was the only religious leader present. As if the UMP and the Jewish lobby held a secret meeting…in public! The truth is, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Sikh representatives were present on stage and in the audience.  Members of civil society outnumbered UMP deputies and ministers.
Farid Hanache, co-author with Imam Hassan Chalgouni of “Islam de France” was outspoken on problems within Muslim communities in France: overweening foreign influence, internecine squabbles, Muslim Brotherhood (UOIF) intimidation, extravagant demands for 1001-nights mosques, mismanagement of the Muslim umbrella organization (the president of the CFCM declined the invitation to participate in the Convention.) Mayor Xavier Lemoine testified to pressure by extremists on Muslims in Montfermeil’s housing projects: They enforce Ramadan fasting, force women to wear hijab, herd families into the mosque. On several occasions the mayor had helped converts escape. In a Muslim country, he added, they would be killed as apostates.
How exactly will the renewed principle of laïcité improve relations between Islam and the République? Some of the proposals are restrictive: a long list of unreasonable demands made by Muslims for special considerations in the workplace, schools, health care facilities, etc. will no longer be indulged. No more tolerance for street prayers. And Islam, like other religions in France, will be expected to respect women’s rights and the freedom to worship and to convert.
Other proposals are supportive of special needs: help in financing mosque construction, reducing the influence of foreign powers. Derogations for ritual slaughter will be maintained for Muslims and Jews despite pressure from animal rights activists and hostile trends within the European Union.
Is Islam the undigested element in French society today because it is a newcomer, or because its founding principles are inimical to laïcité, democracy, respect for man-made laws?  The polite civilized atmosphere at the UMP Convention contrasted with the in-your-face assertiveness of the anti-racists reflects a conflict in which the “establishment” timidly attempts to protect its rights and values against a predatory ideology with fundamentally hostile political ambitions. If the UMP convinces voters that, as Jean- François Copé declared, “the Front National wants problems and we want solution,” the UMP will have a chance to test the hypothesis that the modest reassertion of the rights and responsibilities of religions in a République laïque outlined this week will effectively address the problem that is so hard to name.
The question is, if the diagnosis is too polite, if the offer to reestablish social harmony based on the principle that newcomers must respect a French concept of the nation is met with anger and violence, if the clash becomes inevitable, will France put its foot down and say basta, ça suffit! Contributing Editor Nidra Poller is an American novelist and journalist living in Paris since 1972. She publishes regularly in the Wall Street Journal Europe, New English Review, and other outlets. A collection of her short stories, Karimi Hotel et autres nouvelles d'Africa, will soon be published by l'Harmattan.

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