Muslim groups in France have asked the Roman Catholic Church for permission to use its empty churches as a way to solve the traffic problems caused by thousands of Muslims who pray in the streets. The request, which has been variously described by French political commentators as "alarming," "audacious" and "unprecedented," is yet another example of the growing assertiveness of France's six million Muslims, who are transforming the country in ways unimaginable only a few years ago.
In a March 11 communiqué addressed to the Church of France, the National Federation of the Great Mosque of Paris, the Council of Democratic Muslims of France and a Muslim activist group called Collectif Banlieues Respect called on the Roman Catholic Church – in a spirit of inter-religious solidarity, of course – to make its empty churches available to Muslims for Friday prayers, so that Muslims do not have to "pray in the streets" and be "held hostage to politics."
Every Friday, thousands of Muslims in Paris and other French cities close off streets and sidewalks (and by extension, 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 "Allah 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, here and here), have provoked anger and disbelief. But despite many public complaints, local authorities have declined to intervene because they are 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. In fact, 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, a new opinion poll published by Le Parisien newspaper on March 8 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 just thirteen months before the first round of next year's presidential election, has been spooked by Le Pen's advance in the opinion polls. As a result, 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.
Sarkozy also denounced multiculturalism as a failure and 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."
At the same time, Sarkozy's center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party plans to hold a "national identity debate" on Islam and secularism on April 5. The purpose of the debate is to clarify the rights and responsibilities of Islam in a secular French Republic.
Some French voters, who say Sarkozy's efforts are too little too late, have taken matters into their own hands. For example, a group calling for "resistance to the Islamization of France" recently used Facebook to advertise an anti-Muslim "giant cocktail party" at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. "Identity Block," as the group is known, received some 7,000 RSVPs to attend the so-called "pork sausage and booze" party on the Champs-Elysées. Islam forbids the consumption of pork and alcoholic beverages.
In no mood for compromise, France's most prominent Muslim leader has called for the number of mosques in the country to be doubled to 4,000. In a June 2010 interview with France-Soir, Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grande Mosque of Paris and formerly president of the French Council for Muslims, said a major mosque-building program – courtesy of 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.
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 many 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.