The French government threatened today to deport immigrant Muslim leaders if they espoused violence or anti-Semitism, after a fundamentalist group won a substantial share of seats in a new Islamic council that will represent the religion in France.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy hailed the council election as a historic breakthrough that gives official standing to the nation's second-largest religion after Roman Catholicism. He said he had no reason to criticize the success of the fundamentalist group, the Union of Islamic Organizations in France, which had the second-largest showing behind a moderate group affiliated with Moroccan immigrants.
Sarkozy said the council was the best way to discourage extremism, by encouraging dialogue between Islam and government authorities. But, speaking to the newspaper Le Parisien in comments confirmed by the ministry, he added, "This mutual recognition also gives us more latitude to struggle against those imams who depart from legality and advocate violence or anti-Semitism. They will be expelled."
The government has the authority to deport non-French imams if they engage in political activities in religious sites or defame public officials.
Sarkozy's statements highlighted the balancing act that the government has undertaken in creating the council. On the one hand, officials want to draw France's Muslim population, the largest Muslim minority in Europe, into mainstream French society. On the other, they want to strongly battle certain fundamentalist strains of the faith that they feel could encourage terrorism.
The council was elected by representatives of the country's mosques and prayer groups in two rounds of voting, on April 6 and April 13. The government was elated by a high participation rate, in which 992 of 1,200 eligible mosques voted.
Representatives were elected to four bodies at the national and local levels in a complex voting process.
The biggest surprise was the success of the union, which patterns itself after Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and espouses Islamic rule through political action and personal purification. For instance, it strongly opposes the ban on girls wearing veils in classrooms in French public elementary and secondary schools.
The union won 14 of 41 seats up for grabs in one of the four bodies, the subcouncil of administration.
The union denies that it is fundamentalist. "We defend an Islam faithful to its sources but we tell the faithful to honor their obligations to the [French] republic," Le Parisien quoted the union president, Lhaj Thami Breze, as saying.
The biggest winner was the National Federation of Muslims in France, which pursues moderate policies and is supported largely by Muslims of Moroccan origin and by the Moroccan government. It won 16 seats in the subcouncil of administration.
The loser was a slate backed by the Mosque of Paris, which is supported by the Algerian government and espouses moderate views that are closest to the policies endorsed by the French government. It won only six seats in the subcouncil.
Sarkozy said he hoped one of the council's first tasks would be to help improve training of imams, only a third of whom speak French. The council is also set to try to speed up the approval process for building mosques and Muslim cemeteries, and to make it easier for Muslims to get off work for Muslim holidays.