Sarkozy calls for tolerance but also cautions Muslims about France's identity

By Edward Cody
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

PARIS -- Faced with swelling unease over the place of Muslim immigrants in France, President Nicolas Sarkozy called Tuesday for tolerance among native French people but warned that arriving Muslims must embrace Europe's historical values and avoid "ostentation or provocation" in the practice of their religion.

Sarkozy's appeal, in a statement published by Le Monde newspaper, reflected concern that a government-sponsored debate on France's "national identity," sharpened by a recent referendum banning minarets in neighboring Switzerland, seemed to be contributing to expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment and generating resentment among Muslim citizens and immigrants.

"I address my Muslim countrymen to say I will do everything to make them feel they are citizens like any other, enjoying the same rights as all the others to live their faith and practice their religion with the same liberty and dignity," he said. "I will combat any form of discrimination.

"But I also want to tell them," he continued, "that in our country, where Christian civilization has left such a deep trace, where republican values are an integral part of our national identity, everything that could be taken as a challenge to this heritage and its values would condemn to failure the necessary inauguration of a French Islam."

Sarkozy said he understood the fears of many native French at the growing visibility of Muslims. France has Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated at well over 5 million. That, he said, is what led him to propose the national-identity debate managed by Eric Besson, the minister of immigration, integration and national identity.

"This muffled threat felt by so many people in our old European nations, rightly or wrongly, weighs on their identity," Sarkozy added. "We must all speak about this together, out of fear that, if it is kept hidden, this sentiment could end up nourishing a terrible rancor."

Dismissing criticisms from leftist figures and some members of his own government, Sarkozy said the Swiss decision Nov. 29 to ban construction of minarets arose from a democratic vote and, instead of outrage, should inspire reflection on the resentment felt by Swiss people and many other Europeans, "including the French people."

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner had said he was "a little scandalized" by the Swiss vote and suggested it "means a religion is being oppressed." Intellectuals in the Paris chattering class took their criticism further, suggesting the Swiss vote betrayed bigotry and isolationism.

But Xavier Bertrand, head of Sarkozy's political coalition, the Union for a Popular Movement, seemed to indicate that a referendum like the one in Switzerland would be a good idea for France. In an appearance before reporters, he questioned whether French Muslims "necessarily need" minarets for their mosques.

Bertrand's stand, and Sarkozy's entry into the controversy Tuesday, were seen against the background of regional assembly elections in March, in which the governing coalition is seeking to make inroads into provincial Socialist Party strongholds. The extreme-right National Front, which could drain votes from Sarkozy's party, openly applauded the Swiss decision and said minarets -- towers beside mosques from which the faithful are called to prayer -- should also be banned here.

Along the same lines, members of parliament from Sarkozy's coalition introduced a bill this month giving mayors the authority to ban foreign flags at city hall marriages, aiming at Algerian, Moroccan or Tunisian flags that often accompany the weddings of immigrants' children. Similarly, a mayor from the government majority complained recently that, in his city hall, weddings more often are accompanied by Arab-style ululating than polite applause.

While urging Muslims to avoid ostentation and provocation, Sarkozy avoided specific comment on another test soon to be posed for his government, this one over whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear veils that cover their entire faces. Although only a small number do so, a parliamentary commission has held three months of hearings and is expected to issue a report next month proposing legal restrictions.

The president has said publicly that "the burqa has no place in France," placing his opposition in the context of women's rights. But since then, a number of political leaders have suggested that the French constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, would make legislating on the question difficult no matter what the angle of attack.

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