Muslim Couple's Annulment Becomes National Political Issue in France

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 26, 2008

MONS-EN-BAROEUL, France -- It was a match made in heaven, and both families approved. The groom was a computer engineer, the bride a nursing student. Children of Moroccan immigrants, they had thrived in French society and seemed at home with its ways.

But on their wedding night, the groom discovered that his bride was not the virgin she had said she was. He stormed out of the bridal chamber. His father, outraged, said the marriage was off. That same night, he returned the young woman to her family home.

The drama in this middle-class suburb of apartment blocks and supermarkets, on the eastern edge of Lille in northern France, could have remained a private family affair -- that is what its main protagonists desperately wanted. But instead, it set off a legal struggle with strong political undertones and an explosion of outrage by media-savvy activists in Paris. In the end, it became a parable for the strain France has encountered in absorbing the more than 5 million Muslims, about 8 percent of the population and growing, who have made this country their home.

As part of a national round of soul-searching, French leaders are recognizing with unusual frankness that the country needs to do more to promote integration of Muslims and other children of immigrants. President Nicolas Sarkozy last week named Yazid Sabeg, a successful businessman born to Algerian immigrants, to head a government department assigned to get more minority candidates into politics and more minority students into the elite academies that turn out France's leadership class.

"We must change," Sarkozy declared.

Amar Lasfar, president of the Islamic League of the North, said part of the problem is that only now have French leaders come to grips with the idea that many Muslims are no longer temporary migrant workers but citizens, like the couple here, who intend to spend their lives in France. "Nobody was prepared for this," he said at the Lille mosque where he is rector.

Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, has gone further than his predecessors. He named Rachida Dati, the daughter of Algerian immigrants, as his justice minister; Fadela Amara, also of Algerian heritage, as a junior minister for urban affairs; and Rama Yade, who was born in Senegal, as a junior minister to promote human rights abroad. Dati's ascension marked the first time such a senior post went to a minority figure with visible roots in North Africa.

Although not all immigrants in France are Muslims, the group has generated the most sensitive problems, particularly at a time when the country is battling threats from Islamist extremists inspired by al-Qaeda. At the same time Sarkozy was announcing his integration initiative, for instance, police arrested seven people suspected of belonging to radical Islamist groups, including a branch of al-Qaeda in North Africa.

Moreover, even Muslims born in France have often clung to traditions that set them apart, to the resentment of conservatives reluctant to see the country's ethnic stock evolve or its Christian traditions diluted. After an impassioned political debate and several judicial rulings over the past decade, Muslim girls were forbidden to wear veils in public schools.

Lasfar said the solution is for French people to embrace such Islamic traditions as an addition to their society, not a threat.

Ismail Kawashi, the son of Algerian immigrants who identifies himself as a "modern Muslim," agreed but said Muslims here also have to respect the culture of their adopted country. Insisting on virginity for marriage, for instance, is "shameful" in this day and age, he said as he motored his taxi around Mons-en-Baroeul.

But such live-and-let-live attitudes have not been embraced by all. In the tension generated by Sarkozy's remarks, vandals set fire to the entrance of a mosque in Lyon on Saturday. This month, 500 tombstones of Muslim French army veterans were painted with racist slogans at Notre Dame de Lorette Cemetery near Arras, southwest of here, including insults aimed at Dati.

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