The French government has enacted a new law prohibiting Muslims from praying in the streets, but on the first day of the ban hundreds of Muslims defied the law by taking over streets and sidewalks in Paris and other French cities to pray.

The ban, which took effect on September 16, is the government's response to growing public anger in France over the phenomenon of Muslim street prayers.

Every Friday, thousands of Muslims from Paris to Marseille and elsewhere close off streets and sidewalks (by doing so, they close down local businesses and trap non-Muslim residents in their homes and offices) to accommodate overflowing crowds for midday prayers. Some mosques have also begun broadcasting sermons and chants of "Allahu Akbar" via loudspeakers in the streets.

The weekly spectacles, which have been documented by dozens of videos posted on Youtube.com (here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here), have provoked a mixture of anger, frustration and disbelief. But despite public complaints, local authorities have until now declined to intervene, largely because they have been afraid of sparking riots.

The issue of illegal street prayers was catapulted to the top of the French national political agenda in December 2010, when Marine Le Pen, the charismatic new leader of the far-right National Front party, denounced them as an "occupation without tanks or soldiers."

During a gathering in the east central French city of Lyon on December 10, Le Pen compared Muslims praying in the streets to Nazi occupation. She said: "For those who want to talk a lot about World War II, if it is about occupation, then we could also talk about it [Muslim prayers in the streets], because that is occupation of territory. It is an occupation of sections of the territory, of districts in which religious laws apply. It is an occupation. There are of course no tanks, there are no soldiers but it is nevertheless an occupation and it weighs heavily on local residents."

Many French voters agree: the issue of Muslim street prayers – and the broader question of the role of Islam in French society – has become a major issue ahead of the 2012 presidential elections.

According to a recent survey by Ifop for the France-Soir newspaper, nearly 40% of French voters agree with Len Pen's views that Muslim prayer in the streets resembles an occupation.

Moreover, an opinion poll published by Le Parisien newspaper shows that voters view Le Pen, who has criss-crossed the country arguing that France has been invaded by Muslims and betrayed by its elite, as the candidate best suited to deal with the growing problem of runaway Muslim immigration.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose popularity is at record lows less than one year before the first round of next year's presidential election, is worried about Le Pen's advance in the opinion polls. He now seems determined not to allow Le Pen to monopolize the issue of Islam in France.

Sarkozy recently called Muslim prayers in the street "unacceptable" and said that the street cannot be allowed to become "an extension of the mosque." He also warned that the overflow of Muslim faithful on to the streets at prayer time when mosques are packed to capacity risks undermining the French secular tradition separating state and religion.

French Interior Minister Claude Guéant told Le Figaro newspaper that Muslims who continue to pray in the street will be arrested: "My vigilance will be unflinching for the law to be applied. Praying in the street is not dignified for religious practice and violates the principles of secularism. If anyone happens to be recalcitrant we will put an end to it."

At the same time, the French government has tried to appease angry Muslims by announcing that they can pray in an abandoned fire station in the Goutte d'Or district in Paris until a new, larger mosque is built in 2013.

According to the terms of the lease agreement, two mosques located in northern Paris will rent the 2,000 square meters (21,000 square feet) barracks on Boulevard Ney from the French state for €30,000 ($40,000) per year for a period of three years. Around 5,000 Muslim worshippers are expected to turn up for prayers there.

Islamic mosques are being built more often in France than Roman Catholic churches. Nearly 150 new mosques are currently under construction in France, home to the biggest Muslim community in Europe. The mosque-building projects are at various stages of completion, according to Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the Muslim Council of France (CFCM), who provided the data in an August 2 interview with the French radio station RTL.

The total number of mosques in France has already doubled to more than 2,000 during just the past ten years, according to a research report "Constructing Mosques: The Governance of Islam in France and the Netherlands."

France's most prominent Muslim leader, Dalil Boubakeur, who is rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, recently called for the number of mosques in the country to be doubled again – to 4,000 – to meet growing demand.

Boubakeur said the construction of even more mosques – paid for by French taxpayers – would ease the "pressure, frustration and the sense of injustice" felt by many French Muslims. "Open a mosque and you close a prison," Boubakeur said. About 70% of all inmates in the French prison system are Muslim.

In August, a new mega-mosque for 2,000 worshipers was inaugurated in Strasbourg, where the Muslim population has reached 15%. Construction also continues apace of a new mega-mosque in Marseille, France's second-largest city where the Muslim population has reached 25% (or 250,000). The Grand Mosque – which at more than 8,300 square meters (92,000 square feet) will accommodate up to 7,000 worshippers in a vast prayer hall – is designed to be the biggest and most potent symbol of Islam's place in modern France.

The ban on street prayer is the latest attempt by the French government to remove Islam from the public square, amid rising frustration that the estimated 6.5 million Muslims in France are not integrating into French society

In April 2011, for example, France's much-debated "burqa ban" took effect. The new law prohibits the wearing of Islamic body-covering burqas and face-covering niqabs in all public spaces in France.

Also in April, Sarkozy's center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party held a controversial debate on the compatibility of Islam with the rules of the secular French Republic. The three-hour roundtable discussion, the title of which was altered to remove any reference to Islam, resulting in the anodyne "Secularism: To Live Better Together," was held at the upscale hotel Pullman Paris Montparnasse in the presence of some 500 religious leaders, legislators and journalists.

Organized by UMP leader Jean-François Copé, attendees discussed 26 ideas aimed at preserving France's secular character, enshrined in a 1905 law separating church and state. Participants discussed modern-day quandaries about issues such as halal food being served in schools and Muslim street prayers, as well as a proposal to enact a new law that would prohibit citizens from rejecting public service employees because of their sex or religion.

Other proposals discussed at the event include: 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; and preventing parents from withdrawing their children from mandatory subjects including physical education and biology.

In February, Sarkozy denounced multiculturalism as a failure and said Muslims must assimilate into the French culture if they want to be welcomed in France. In a live-broadcast interview with French Channel One television, Sarkozy said: "I do not want a society where communities coexist side by side … France will not welcome people who do not agree to melt into a single community. We have been too busy with the identity of those who arrived and not enough with the identity of the country that accepted them."

Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.

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