Islam debate in France sparks controversy

Participants in the debate on secularity listen to UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope (on screen) speaking in Paris, 5 April The debate caused divisions within the ruling party

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy's party, the UMP, has hosted a controversial debate on the practice of Islam in secular France.

The debate provoked protests from Islamic and other religious groups, and even from some members of the governing party itself.

Critics have accused the party of pandering to a resurgent far right.

The debate was held a week before a law banning the Islamic full-face veil in public comes into force.

With Muslim religious leaders boycotting the event, only politicians or representatives of other faiths took part in the three-hour, round-table discussion at a Paris hotel.

The BBC's Hugh Schofield in Paris says the political atmosphere in France in recent days has been poisonous, with accusations flying between left and right.

According to government estimates, France has as many as six million Muslims, or just under 10% of the population, making it the biggest Muslim minority in western Europe.

French people 'challenged'
French people protest against UMP debate on secularism The debate has provoked outrage among some

The UMP argued that it would be irresponsible not to debate the great changes posed to French society by its growing numbers of Muslims.

It outlined 26 ideas aimed at underpinning the country's secular character, which was enshrined in a law of 1905.

The law poses modern-day quandaries about issues such as halal food being served in schools and Muslims praying in the street when mosques are too crowded.

Proposals discussed on Tuesday included

  • banning the wearing of religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves or prominent Christian crosses by day care personnel
  • preventing Muslim mothers from wearing headscarves when accompanying children on school field trips
  • preventing parents from withdrawing their children from mandatory subjects including physical education and biology.

Launching the debate entitled simply "Secularity" before 200 guests and scores of journalists, UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope defended the idea of holding it at all.

Accusing the opposition Socialists of being in denial and the National Front of demagoguery, he called for "a third way, that of responsibility".

"Many French people have the feeling that the republican pact to which they are attached is being challenged by globalisation and the failures of integration," he said.

'Importune'

However, one of Mr Cope's most senior UMP colleagues, Prime Minister Francois Fillon, declined to take part in the debate, warning that it risked "stigmatising Muslims".

Gilles Bernheim, France's chief rabbi, said the debate was "importune" but he was taking part nonetheless.

"We did not ask for this debate but there was no question for us of boycotting it and stigmatising a political party, even if it is a ruling party," he told reporters after arriving at the hotel.

Salim Himidi, a former foreign minister of the largely Muslim Comoros Islands, said Islam's relations with the secular state was "an important subject" that had to be discussed.

"I think France has a mission that goes beyond its geographical limits," he added.

Condemning the debate, Hassan Ben M'Barek of the pressure group Banlieues Respect, said it was aimed only at "keeping the UMP in the media in the year before the [next presidential] election".

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