Mosque project stirs unease in French port city of Marseille

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 26, 2009

MARSEILLE, FRANCE -- Notre Dame de la Garde, an elegant Roman Catholic basilica, has stood for 150 years on a promontory just south of Marseille's Old Port, looking down protectively as fishermen push out to the sea and symbolizing the irrepressible spirit of this fabled Mediterranean city.

But a new and very different symbol is scheduled to rise soon on another promontory, this one on the north side of the Old Port. It is the $30 million Grand Mosque of Marseille, a place for the metropolitan region's more than 200,000 Muslims to gather and worship and a dramatic reminder of the Islamic heritage that is grafting itself onto France's cultural landscape.

The mosque, which at 92,500 square feet will be France's largest, has become an emblem for the many native French people who feel uncomfortable with an immigrant population that, as its numbers rise, increasingly seeks to live by its own religious and cultural rules rather than assimilate into France's long Christian tradition.

The strain is particularly intense in Marseille, where kebab shops line the once-elegant Canebiere Avenue and North African Arabic seems as prevalent as French on the sunny cafe terraces where residents traditionally do their business and take their aperitifs. But Marseille is not alone; across the wealthy countries of Western Europe, growing communities of Muslim immigrants have created unease among native populations by seeking to affirm their own identities -- by building mosques, for instance, or wearing veils in the street.

Cultural concerns

In Switzerland, voters will go to the polls Sunday for a referendum on a proposal to ban minarets, the towers attached to mosques from which Muslim preachers traditionally call the faithful to prayer by chanting Koranic verses. Polls indicate that the measure will be defeated, but it has underlined the distress of many Swiss people who fear minarets may join cowbells as symbols of their culture.

Similar fears were stoked in Marseille two weeks ago when youths of North African origin twice poured into the streets, some of them destroying cars and boats docked in the Old Port, to vent their feelings over Algeria's mixed luck in a pair of qualifying matches for the World Cup soccer tournament. France's team, which qualified with narrow victories over Ireland, did not seem to interest them as passionately, an anomaly described by Immigration Minister Eric Besson as "integration troubles."

"We must demand that those youths choose," said Marine Le Pen, vice president of the right-wing National Front, headed by her father, former presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. "You cannot have two nations in your heart, two allegiances."

Ronald Perdomo, a right-wing lawyer and Marseille politician, called the planned mosque a "cathedral mosque" designed to be a "symbol of non-assimilation" that will balance off Notre Dame de la Garde and send a message from its 75-foot-high minaret that Marseille's Muslim residents are "imposing their religious norms."

After failing in two lawsuits to block a construction permit for the mosque, Perdomo's Regional Front and three other rightist groups filed a new suit Tuesday alleging that Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin sidestepped building regulations in granting the permit and thus violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

"It is not reasonable to make exceptions to the law on the pretext that there are a large number of Muslims in France," Perdomo said in an interview.

A native French retiree polishing his car near where work on the mosque is scheduled to begin in April lamented the project. But the mosque, he said, is only part of what Muslim immigrants have done to Marseille in recent years. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said he did not want to be racist, "but you have to, when you see what is happening."

"Marseille is finished," he added, before turning to a game of petanque. "There is nothing left but blacks and Arabs."

A national discussion

Recognizing the unease -- and seeking to capitalize politically on it -- President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government has launched what it calls a "national identity debate," in which French people are officially encouraged to reflect on what it means to be French. The debate, scheduled to wind up just before regional elections in the spring, is being managed by Besson, a former Socialist whose full title is minister of immigration, integration and national identity.

The debate, at least as far as it concerns the Grand Mosque, has largely bypassed Elias Djeddeh, a 44-year-old barber who immigrated to Marseille from Algeria 11 years ago and plans to live the rest of his life here. For him, the mosque will provide the city's Muslims with their first purpose-built place of worship -- replacing a haphazard collection of basements, garages and rented rooms -- and allow the city at large to get a taste of Muslim culture in the mosque's adjoining restaurant and tearoom.

"It's great," he said, snipping away at a client's hair while Algerian pop music played in the background and friends stopped by to sip bitter coffee. "This will be our first true mosque."

Nourredine Cheikh, a retired Marseille businessman of Algerian origin who spearheaded the campaign to build the mosque, said the city's Muslims have been trying to do this since the beginning of the 20th century. But the project became politically viable only in 2001, when Gaudin, a conservative in Sarkozy's coalition, reversed course and threw his political weight behind it, Cheikh said. Gaudin handed over the building permit in a City Hall ceremony on Nov. 6

The minaret will not broadcast Koranic chants, Cheikh said, because that would probably disturb the neighbors, some of whom campaigned against allowing construction. Instead, a powerful light beam will be emitted from the top of the tower at prayer times, becoming a new landmark for Marseille that will be visible to approaching boats and planes -- and to residents of all origins sitting at their favorite cafes on the Old Port.

"Marseille is a cosmopolitan city," Cheikh said. "You can't take that away."

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