French President Nicolas Sarkozy has fired a Muslim advisor he recently hired to promote "diversity" after the appointee openly attacked the president's plan to hold a debate about Islam in France.
The dustup reflects growing Muslim resistance to Sarkozy's efforts to protect the secular nature of the French state from Islamic Sharia law, namely by calling for the estimated six million Muslims living in France to be better integrated into French society.
Abderrahmane Dahmane, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, was let go after he spoke out against a plan by Sarkozy's center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party to hold a debate on secularism and Islam. The debate, which has been scheduled for April 5, is on the compatibility of Islam with the rules of the secular French Republic.
Dahmane, who was appointed to his post only in January, said Muslim members of the UMP should not renew their party membership unless the debate is cancelled. He compared the situation of French Muslims to that of Jews during World War II and said the debate had been planned by a "handful of neo-Nazis." Dahmane also called UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope a "plague for Muslims." Cope has been a strong supporter of government policies that impose secular values in public institutions such as schools.
One of the UMP's leaders, Valerie Rosso Debord, said Dahmane had been removed from his post for "outrageous comments" about Cope and the UMP and for making "odious comparisons" between the debate and racism in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. But a growing number of French citizens say the Muslims, who mostly hail from former French colonies in North Africa, are not integrating into French society. In response, the government has been pursuing policies aimed at remedying the problem. These include a recent ban on wearing the full-face Islamic veil in public.
In 2010, the French government passed a law banning Muslim women from wearing face-covering veils, such as niqabs or burqas, in public. The law, which comes into effect on April 11, 2011, imposes a fine of €150 ($200) and/or a citizenship course as punishment for wearing a face-covering veil. Forcing a woman to wear a niqab or a burqa will be punishable by a year in prison or a €15,000 ($20,000) fine. The government says that forcing Muslim women to cover up is "a new form of enslavement that the republic cannot accept on its soil."
French people back the ban by a margin of more than four to one, according to a recent survey published by the Washington-based Pew Global Attitudes Project. Some 82% of people polled approved of a ban, while 17% disapproved.
Picking up on the growing unease over Muslim immigration, Sarkozy on February 10 denounced multiculturalism as a failure. He also said Muslims must assimilate into the French culture if they want to be welcomed in France.
Joining other European leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who recently have spoken out against multiculturalism, Sarkozy declared in a live-broadcast interview with French Channel One television: "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." Sarkozy also said that he does not want Muslims to pray on the streets.
Sarkozy's comments come as his popularity is at record lows just thirteen months before the first round of the 2012 presidential election, and as a new opinion poll shows that growing frustration over Muslim immigration is contributing to the rise of the far-right National Front party in France. According to a survey published by Le Parisien newspaper on March 8, National Front party leader Marine Le Pen, 42, who took over from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in January, could win the first round of next year's presidential election.
The survey gives Le Pen 23%, two percentage points ahead of both Sarkozy and Socialist leader Martine Aubry. On the basis of this opinion poll, Le Pen would automatically qualify for the second round run-off with one or other of the two mainstream party leaders.
Le Pen, who appeals to middle class voters, is riding high on voter dissatisfaction with the failure of the mainstream parties to address Muslim immigration. Since taking her post three months ago, Le Pen has single-handedly catapulted the twin issues of Islam and French national identity to the top of the French political agenda.
On March 14, Le Pen visited the Italian island of Lampedusa, a 20-square-kilometer island that has traditionally been as a major gateway for illegal immigration into the European Union. She told undocumented immigrants on the island that they were not welcome in Europe.
"I have a lot of compassion for you, but Europe cannot welcome you. We do not have the financial means," Le Pen said. Almost 10,000 mainly Tunisian migrants have arrived on dozens of boats in Lampedusa since the revolt in Tunisia in January -- more than the total for all of 2010.
On March 2, the French minister for European affairs, Laurent Wauquiez, warned that up to 300,000 illegal immigrants could arrive in the European Union from North Africa during 2011. The influx of immigrants from Libya is a "real risk for Europe that must not be underestimated," he said.
Meanwhile, the French Constitutional Court on March 10 struck down key aspects of a new law designed to crack down on Muslim-related urban violence. The court ruled that thirteen articles from security legislation passed by the Sarkozy government in February violated the French constitution. One of the articles removed by the court called for recent immigrants who attack police officers to be stripped of French citizenship.
Over the past several years, France has been the scene of count;ess Muslim uprisings, usually accompanied by riots and car burnings. Large swaths of Muslim areas are now considered "no-go" zones by French police. At last count, there are 751 Sensitive Urban Zones (Zones Urbaines Sensibles, ZUS), as they are euphemistically called. A complete list of the ZUS can be found on a French government website, complete with satellite maps and precise street demarcations. An estimated 5 million Muslims live in the ZUS, parts of France over which the French state has lost control.