French Muslims feel stigmatised in vote debate

A Muslim woman walks through the Empalot district of Toulouse

A Muslim woman walks through the Empalot district of Toulouse March 27, 2012. Picture taken March 27, 2012.

When police kicked in Mohamed Asbol’s at dawn and hauled away his son on suspicion of being an Islamist radical, he saw it as further proof that he was not considered fully French.

The 64-year-old was born in Algeria but came to France as a teenager, took French nationality, worked for decades as a welder, paid his taxes and quietly brought up his family in the northern city of Roubaix.

But, he insisted, as a friend arrived to help him fix the door on his modest red-brick terraced house, he is still seen as an outsider and he believes the policies of President Nicolas Sarkozy are reinforcing that prejudice.

“They broke my dignity. I am disappointed with France. It’s obvious that he is stigmatising Muslims to get votes,” said Asbol, just a week before the first round of voting in France’s presidential election.

“Just because my son has a beard, wears a djellaba and goes to the mosque doesn’t mean he’s a terrorist!” he said, indignantly.

His 28-year-old son Said’s arrest came during a series of police raids on April 4 that netted 10 individuals in cities across France.

The dawn sweep was the second high profile wave of arrests of suspected Islamists in the wake of murders by a self-proclaimed Al-Qaeda member from Toulouse that shocked France.

The first wave netted deactivated assault rifles and other weapons and a number of people were kept in custody on terrorist-linked charges.

But the second round, conducted under the glare of deliberately invited television cameras, came to nothing. Said Arbol and the nine others were released without charge.

This led to claims that Sarkozy was using the raids to burnish his tough-guy anti-immigrant credentials and to poach votes from erstwhile supporters of the anti-immigrant National Front party.

Such criticism is particularly trenchant in Roubaix, a city of around 95,000 people on the Belgian border that has the biggest ethnic mix of any French city outside Paris and also happens to be France’s poorest town.

Many of the city’s residents are Muslim, and many feel particularly angry at Sarkozy, who bluntly announced last month in his first major campaign interview that there were “too many foreigners” in France.

Sarkozy has consistently trailed his Socialist rival Francois Hollande in the opinion polls.

“They have attacked us on all fronts – the burqa, halal meat, young people,” said 34-year-old Moussa Gacem as he stood behind the counter at the Roubaix snack bar where he worked.

Gacem, a French national born here of North African parents, was referring to a law Sarkozy passed banning the full-face veil that had been worn by a tiny minority of Muslim women in France.

Sarkozy has also sparked protests from both Jewish and Muslim leaders, who complained that their communities were being used as pawns in the election, after the president criticised the production of halal and kosher meat.

“If Islam can be used as a target then Sarkozy will do that,” said Gacem.

Salima Saa, a Roubaix local who is on Sarkozy’s campaign team and is herself a candidate for his UMP party in legislative elections due in June, agrees that many in Roubaix feel stigmatised by her party leader’s policies.

Saa, whose father was an Algerian who made a career in the French army, said that, while the police raids earlier this month were exploited for electoral purposes, there were radical Islamists in Roubaix who escaped arrest.

She also distanced herself from some of the UMP’s more outspoken members, such as one lawmaker who said that the only thing French about the Islamist killer in Toulouse, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, was his identity card.

That same comment could be applied to Saa or to the millions of other people of foreign origin in France, which is home to Western Europe’s largest Muslim minority, officially estimated at least four million.

France has been debating for years how far it is willing to go to accommodate Islam, the country’s second religion, and both Sarkozy and National Front leader Marine Le Pen have made the question a key campaign issue.

In Roubaix, which has one of the youngest populations of any city in France, that debate is heated, with many maintaining that being of immigrant stock or being Muslim means you face discrimination.

“A large part of the youth here is confronted with the glass ceiling of discrimination,” said Slimane Tir, a local official who is standing on a Green ticket in June’s legislative elections.

He notes that the city’s unemployment rate is around 30 percent, three times higher than the national average, and that youth unemployment is as high as 50 percent.

Young people in Roubaix are angry and they are right to be angry, said Tir.

“They have been thrown to the lions… to satisfy an electoral panic that comes from the highest level of the state,” he said.

( / 15.04.2012)

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