Some dressed in dark suits and others in robes, Muslim men lined up to vote Sunday in the first election of an official council to represent their community in France.
Gathering in a plain yellow conference room at the Robespierre municipal library in this working-class suburb of Paris, they placed their ballots in a large clear box. Afterward, some stayed behind at one end of the room to pray, facing toward Mecca, repeatedly touching their foreheads to the speckled gray linoleum floor.
The voting, conducted in parts of the country on Sunday and scheduled in the remainder of the nation a week later, represents a major effort by President Jacques Chirac's government to give Europe's largest Muslim minority a stake in mainstream French society. French officials said the voting also is intended to increase the influence of moderate Islamic leaders and isolate fundamentalists, whose religious dogmatism could lead to terrorism.
Not all of the country's 4 million to 5 million Muslims are participating in the election. The voters are delegates of mosques or prayer groups, some representing tens of thousands of adherents. Voters here expressed enthusiasm that Islam now will have official standing, a privilege already given Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism.
"The Muslims are going to breathe freely. They have lived hidden in the cellars. Now they will come out into the sunshine," said Mohamed Benrezzoug, 35, a candidate for one of the more militant Islamic groups running in the election. A math teacher from nearby Les Mureaux, Benrezzoug immigrated to France from Morocco 14 years ago.
The balloting was scheduled long before the Iraq war. But Chirac was influenced in his opposition to the war by his desire not to alienate the Muslim population, and to promote good relations with the North African Arab nations from which many of France's Muslims emigrated, according to French political analysts and diplomats in Paris.
A poll published in Monday's Le Figaro found that 94 percent of French Muslims oppose the war and approve Chirac's opposition to it.
"Because Chirac responded as he did, there hasn't been much internal conflict in France. Chirac's choice meant the conflict abroad was not brought into France," said Elouanali Idriss, 29, secretary of the polling station at Poissy. A computer technician, he also is secretary general of a mosque in Les Mureaux and head of an association that collects data on France's Muslims.
Antiwar demonstrations here, which have attracted substantial Muslim participation, have been declining in size and mostly have been peaceful. One exception was an incident in which two Jewish peace activists were hospitalized after being beaten with pipes by Muslim protesters in Paris. The assault was denounced by Interior Ministry Nicolas Sarkozy and Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe. Organizers of subsequent marches assigned marshals to keep discipline and prevent use of anti-Semitic slogans or other offensive behavior.
Jean-Luc Parodi, a director of research at the National Political Science Foundation in Paris, said the French government was under more pressure to oppose the war than governments of nations with smaller Muslim populations.
A pro-war position "would have been much more difficult to take, because of the state of French society, compared to that of Italy or Spain," Parodi said. Italy and Spain, both of which support the war, each have fewer than 1 million Muslims.
Government authorities agree that Chirac's antiwar position has promoted domestic tranquility, though they say that he was motivated to take his stance not by concern about violence in the streets but by his view that the war violated international law.
"It's reasonable to think that it has contributed" to social peace, said a source close to Sarkozy. The minister played a key role in pushing for the new Muslim council, at the same time that he has sought to crack down on crime that many in France associate with poor Muslims in industrial suburbs.
"There are extremist elements who would like to provoke a fight," the Interior Ministry official said. "The fact that Muslims can speak freely [through the council] is something very positive" that should inhibit such troubles, he said.
The first council will serve for two years. A deal has already been reached among the three largest Muslim federations, with encouragement from Sarkozy, that will allow Dalil Boubakeur, the moderate rector of the Paris Mosque, to emerge as the council's president. His mosque is financed in part by the Algerian government, which has recently moved to develop warmer relations with Chirac's government.
Muslim leaders say the council will give them greater authority in promoting their political issues, such as seeking building permits for mosques. They also seek paid time off for celebrating Muslim holidays and ask for special permission to set aside meat-handling regulations so Muslims can carry out their traditional slaughter of sheep on the Aid Kebir holiday.
The council also is expected to create a training program for imams, religious leaders, partly to help them improve their French. Many imams now speak only Arabic, although many second- and third-generation French Muslims do not speak the language. Chirac and Sarkozy also want to promote a French model of Islam that is compatible with the nation's republican values.
One particularly delicate issue is the national ban on Muslim female students wearing veils in classrooms in elementary and secondary schools. The French government contends veils are a religious display that is inappropriate in public, secular institutions.
Some fundamentalist Islamic groups see the veil as a key issue, while moderates like Boubakeur advocate compromise in accord with French political traditions.