PARIS – France’s interior minister threatened Thursday to close any mosque in France that is considered extremist and to expel any Muslim prayer leader who preached a radical message.
In an interview in the daily Le Figaro, the minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, also pledged to deny visas to Muslim participants in conferences who did not respect the values of the French state.
“The Muslims are not above the law, but they are not below the law either,” Sarkozy was quoted as saying. “Because I have reached out my hand, I can be very firm against all fundamentalist movements.”
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More than any other official in France’s center-right government, Sarkozy has sought to set strict limits on the behavior of the country’s growing Muslim community. He has spoken of creating an “official Islam for France” that will take France’s second-largest religion out of the “cellars and garages” and demonstrate that most Muslims are mainstream, law-abiding citizens.
In April, he was booed and whistled at when he said at the annual conference of one of France’s most important Muslim groups that Muslim women would have to go bareheaded when posing for pictures for their identity cards.
His declaration backfired. Soon afterward, the satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné revealed that the wife of the president, Bernadette Chirac, had lobbied successfully on behalf of Sister Adalberta, a close friend and a Carmelite nun, to wear a veil for her identity-card photo.
In the interview, Sarkozy declared: “No one should expect any weakness from me. Mosques where extremist Islam is preached will be closed. Imams who give radical sermons will be expelled. And conference-goers who don’t show proof of respect for republican rules will find themselves systematically denied visas to enter France.”
“There are five million Muslims in France,” he said. “Whether that makes people happy or not, it’s still a reality.”
French law dictates a strict separation of church and state, and Sarkozy’s remarks come amid a fierce debate about whether to pass a law banning head scarves in public schools.
Testifying Tuesday before a governmental commission, François Fillon, minister of social affairs, said that France needed a new law to keep displays of religion out of schools.
“Personally, I favor a law banning the ostentatious wearing of all religious symbols,” Fillon told members of the commission. “We must get rid of this ambiguity, otherwise all the barriers will disappear.”
Under current law, the wearing of head scarves in schools is permitted as long as it is not “aggressive or proselytizing.” But it has been left to individual schools to decide, and while most ban the scarves, more Muslim girls are showing up at school in head coverings.
The commission is to make recommendations to the government by the end of the year on how best to preserve secularism in French society.
Luc Ferry, minister of education, told the commission that a law banning all religious symbols “would be a very complicated process” that would “make martyrs and promote the establishment of Koranic schools.”
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