France seeks new start with Muslim community

France's Interior Minister met with senior Muslim representatives and agreed that efforts to foster good relations will include the creation of an Islamic foundation funded solely with French money.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

The general secretary of the French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM) Abdallah Zekri (L) and Paris' Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur (C) arrive for a meeting with Interior minister and representatives of the Muslim community on August 29, 2016 in Paris.

Updated Aug 31, 2016

France's government on Monday sought to open a new chapter in relations with the country's Muslims following a summer scarred by terrorist attacks and a ban on burkinis that caused tensions.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve met with senior Muslim representatives and agreed that efforts to foster good relations will include the creation of an Islamic foundation, funded solely with money from within France.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve (R) and representatives of the Muslim community on August 29, 2016 in Paris. Image: AFP

But Prime Minister Manuel Valls, speaking later Monday, urged a fight to defeat what he called "Islamist totalitarianism" which aimed at "fracturing democracies, stifling individual liberties and installing a new social order in which men dominate women."  

The burkini is banned on beaches in around 30 towns, with some mayors linking the bans to the July 14 terror attack in Nice that killed 86 and the murder of a Catholic priest near Rouen by DAESH sympathisers.

The controversy surrounding the burkini, the full-body swimming garment, looks set to continue after several mayors said they would ignore the country's top administrative court decision to suspend the ban.

Anouar Kbibech, leader of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), said he hoped Monday's talks were the start of a new chapter.

"This positive development will put an end to the repulsive saga of the burkini," he said.

Cazeneuve said the aim of the discussions was to forge "an Islam anchored in the values of the French Republic".

He stressed however that all religions had to respect France's laws on the strict separation of religion and state.

A woman wearing a headscarf joins a demonstration organised by "Stand up to Racism" outside the French Embassy in London on August 26, 2016 against the Burkini ban on French beaches. Image:AFP

The talks will lead to the creation of a 'Foundation for Islam in France',  through which funds will be raised in France rather than abroad to ensure the transparent sourcing of funds.

But the choice of 77-year-old former defence minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement to head the foundation has sparked controversy, with many observers asking why a Muslim was not given the role.

'Prevention of Radicalisation'

Chevenement sidestepped the controversy, telling AFP, "As a former interior minister myself, I could not turn down the opportunity to contribute to this initiative of great interest to the public."

Hakim El Karoui, a secular Muslim who participated in Monday's talks, said that the choice of Chevenement was "clumsiness at the very least".

Cazeneuve, the current interior minister, said the foundation would act as a "bridge between the French state and France's Muslims".

Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun and Kamel Kabtane, the rector of a mosque in the central city of Lyon, are among Muslims who will sit on the foundation's board.

France's secular laws mean the foundation's scope is limited to areas like education and research.

"If they are given the financial means, Muslim institutions can strengthen their role in the prevention of radicalisation," said Kbibech.


The anti-Islamophobia group which spearheaded the legal challenge to the burkini ban said it will go to court this week to force four French Riviera towns -- Nice, Menton, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and Frejus -- to drop the measure.

Nice is among the towns that have refused to abide by the court ruling.

Images of police apparently ordering a woman in a burkini, on the beach in Nice, to remove clothing, which was in violation of the ban, sparked worldwide outrage.

Nice authorities however insisted she was simply showing police the swimsuit she was wearing under her top, when the pictures were taken.

Eighty-six people were killed in Nice in July and over 400 people were injured when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove a truck into crowds leaving a fireworks display on Nice's waterfront during France's national holiday.