By Soeren Kern
Opinion surveys show that to voters in France -- home to an estimated 6.5 million Muslims, the largest Muslim population in the European Union -- Islam and the question of Muslim immigration have emerged in 2012 as a top-ranked public concern. The French, it seems, are increasingly worried about the establishment of a parallel Muslim society there.
But government efforts this year to push back against the Islamization of France were halting and half-hearted and could be described as "one step forward, two steps back."
A chronological review of some of the main stories involving the rise of Islam in France during 2012 includes:
Muslim immigrants, as of January, began to find it more difficult to obtain French citizenship. New citizenship rules that entered into effect on January 1, 2012 now require all applicants to pass exams on French culture and history and also to prove that their French language skills are equivalent to those of a 15-year-old native speaker. Moreover, candidates seeking French citizenship will be required to pledge allegiance to "French values."
Muslim applicants make up the majority of the 100,000 people naturalized as French citizens each year, and the new citizenship requirements form part of a larger effort to promote Muslim integration into French society.
In February, the Persian Gulf Emirate of Qatar announced plans to invest €50 million($65 million) in French suburbs, home to more than one million disgruntled Muslim immigrants.
Qatar said its investment was intended to support small businesses in disadvantaged Muslim neighborhoods. But as Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, subscribes to the ultra-conservative Wahhabi sect of Islam, critics say the emirate's real objective is to peddle its religious ideology among Muslims in France and other parts of Europe.
Shortly before Qatar announced its plans to invest in France, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who has long cultivated an image as a pro-Western reformist and modernizer, vowed to "spare no effort" to spread the fundamentalist teachings of Wahhabi Islam across "the whole world."
The promotion of Islamic extremist ideologies -- particularly Wahhabism, which not only discourages Muslim integration in the West, but actively encourages jihad against non-Muslims -- threatens to further radicalize Muslim immigrants in France.
The Qatari investments are being targeted in blighted French suburban slums, known in France as banlieues, where up to one million or more mostly unemployed Muslim immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East try to get by on an impoverished existence.
The banlieues are already being exploited by Islamist preachers from countries such as Morocco and Turkey which are leveraging the social marginalization of Muslim immigrants in France to create "separate Islamic societies" ruled by Islamic Sharia law.
Also in February, a French television documentary revealed that all of the slaughterhouses in the greater Paris metropolitan area are now producing all of their meat in accordance with Islamic Sharia law.
The exposé broadcast by France 2 television on February 16 also alleged that much of the religiously slaughtered meat known as halal is not labeled as such and is entering the general food chain, where it is being unwittingly consumed by the non-Muslim population.
Halal, in Arabic meaning lawful or legal, is a term designating any object or action that is permissible according to Sharia law. In the context of food, halal meat is derived from animals slaughtered by hand according to methods stipulated in Islamic religious texts.
According to the France 2 documentary, French Street scene secretly filmed in a French no-go zone slaughterhouses produce far more halal meat than is needed to serve the 6.5 million Muslims who live in France. The documentary reported that roughly 30% of all the meat produced in France is halal, while the Muslim population in France makes up approximately 7% of the total French population.
To avoid the costs associated with running separate production lines for halal and non-halal customers, French slaughterhouses are selling the remaining halal meat as non-halal. As a result, a significant amount of the meat being sold in French grocery stores is actually not labeled as halal and, according to France 2 television, French consumers are being tricked into buying products they normally would not eat.
In March, a 23-year-old Islamic jihadist named Mohamed Merah confirmed the threat of homegrown Muslim terrorism in France when, on March 11, he killed three French paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi with close-range shots to the head. Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin, filmed himself carrying out the attacks to "verify" the deaths. He later died in a storm of gunfire on March 22 after a 32-hour standoff with police at his apartment in the southern French city of Toulouse.
According to French police, Merah attacked the French Army personnel because of France's involvement in the war in Afghanistan, and the Jewish schoolchildren because "the Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine."
Also in March, the referee of a woman's football match in the southern French city of Narbonne refused to officiate the game when players for one of the teams took to the pitch wearing Muslim headscarves. The March 18 incident involved players from Petit-Bard Montpellier, who had been due to play Narbonne in a regional promotional tie.
The international governing body of football, known as FIFA, banned players from wearing the Islamic headscarf, also known as the hijab, in 2007, saying it was unsafe. But on March 3, FIFA accepted in principal that female footballers could wear headscarves when playing in official competitions. The rule change, instigated by Ali bin al-Hussein, a FIFA vice president who is also the brother of the King of Jordan, entered into effect on July 2.
FIFA Secretary General Jerome Vacke said al-Hussein successfully convinced FIFA that the hijab is a cultural rather than a religious symbol, and that the rule change would allow women all over the world to play football. But the change angered many Europeans, including some feminist groups, who say the Muslim headscarf is a sign of "male domination."
In a March 19 interview with the French newspaper Le Parisien, Asma Guenifi, the director of a women's rights group called Ni Putes, Ni Soumises [Neither Prostitutes Nor Submissives], said the rule change is "a total regression." She added: "I think FIFA is influenced by intense lobbying from rich Middle Eastern countries, such as Qatar."
In May, Muslims determined the outcome of the French presidential elections. An analysis of the voting patterns that barreled François Hollande to victory on May 6 as the first Socialist president of France since 1995 showed this was due in large measure to Muslims, who voted for him in overwhelming numbers.
According to a survey of French voters conducted by the polling firm OpinionWay for the Paris-based newspaper Le Figaro, an extraordinary 93% of French Muslims voted for Hollande. By contrast, the poll showed that only 7% of French Muslims voted for the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy.
An estimated two million Muslims participated in the 2012 election, meaning that roughly 1.7 million Muslim votes went to Hollande rather than to Sarkozy. In the election as a whole, however, Hollande won by only 1.1 million votes. This figure indicates that Muslims cast the deciding votes which thrust Hollande into the Élysée Palace.
During the campaign, Hollande had offered an amnesty to all of the estimated 400,000 illegal Muslim immigrants currently in France. He also pledged to change French electoral laws so that Muslim residents without French citizenship would be allowed to vote in municipal elections as of 2014. These measures, if implemented, would enable the Socialist Party to tighten its grip on political power, both at the regional and national levels.
As the politically active Muslim population in France continues to swell, and as most Muslims vote for Socialist and leftwing parties, conservative parties will find it increasingly difficult to win future presidential elections in France.
In June, a French appeals court granted permission for the construction of a mega-mosque in the southern city of Marseille, home to the largest Muslim community in France.
The ruling, which overturned an October 2011 decision by a lower court to annul the construction permit for the mosque, represented a major victory for proponents of the mosque, long touted as the biggest and most potent symbol of Islam's growing presence France.
The €22 million ($27 million) project would have the Grand Mosque -- with a minaret soaring 25 meters (82 feet) high, and room for up to 7,000 worshippers in a vast prayer hall -- built on the north side of Marseille's old port in the city's Saint-Louis district, an ethnically mixed neighborhood that suffers from poverty and high unemployment.
Several decades in the planning, the project was granted a construction permit in November 2009. At the time, city officials said the new mosque would help the Muslim community better integrate into the mainstream and would foster a more moderate form of Islam.
The first cornerstone of the 8,300 square meter (90,000 square foot) project was laid in May 2010. The elaborate stone-laying ceremony was attended by Muslim religious leaders and local politicians, as well as more than a dozen diplomats from Muslim countries.
Full-scale construction of the Grand Mosque -- which will include a Koranic school and a library, as well as a restaurant and tea room -- was scheduled to begin in February 2012, but the project has faced stiff opposition from local residents and businesses. Opponents of the Grand Mosque have argued that it would be out of harmony with the neighborhood's economic and social fabric. The appeals court ruling, dated June 19, means that construction of the mosque can now continue unimpeded.
In July, the Socialist government began paying down some of its political indebtedness to the Muslim community by officially inaugurating a new mega-mosque in Paris as a first step towards "progressively building a French Islam."
The 2,000 square meter (21,500 square foot) three-story mega-mosque, located in the northern Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise, is not only vast in its dimensions (photo here), but is also highly visible and symbolic: its towering minaret, which critics say has been purposely designed to change the suburb's skyline by being taller than any church steeple in the neighborhood, is supposed to become the "new symbol of Islam in France."
Speaking on behalf of President Hollande at the mosque's inauguration ceremony on July 9, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls articulated the Socialist government's policy vis-à-vis the construction of new mosques in France: "A mosque, when it is erected in the city, says a simple thing: Islam has its place in France."
In August, the French government announced a plan to boost policing in 15 of the most crime-ridden parts of France, in an effort to reassert state control over the country's so-called "no-go" zones (Muslim-dominated neighborhoods that are largely off limits to non-Muslims).
These crime-infested districts, which the French Interior Ministry has designated as Priority Security Zones (zones de sécurité prioritaires, or ZSP), include heavily Muslim parts of Paris, Marseilles, Strasbourg, Lille and Amiens.
The crackdown on lawlessness in the ZSP began in September, when French Interior Minister Manuel Valls deployed riot police, detectives and intelligence agents into the selected areas. The hope is that a "North American-style" war on crime can prevent France's impoverished suburbs from descending into turmoil. If the new policy results in a drop in crime, Valls is expected to name up to 40 more ZSP before the summer of 2013.
Many of these new ZSP coincide with Muslim neighborhoods that previous French governments have considered to be Sensitive Urban Zones (Zones Urbaine Sensibles, or ZUS), which are "no-go" zones for French police.
At last count, there were a total of 751 Sensitive Urban Zones, a comprehensive list of which can be found on a French government website, complete with satellite maps and precise street demarcations. An estimated five million Muslims live in the ZUS, parts of France over which the French state has lost control.
Also in August, around 100 Muslim youths in the impoverished Fafet-Brossolette district of Amiens went on a two-day arson rampage after police arrested a Muslim man for driving without a license. Muslims viewed the arrest as "insensitive" because it came as many residents of the neighborhood were attending a funeral for Nadir Hadji, a 20-year-old Algerian youth who had died in a motorcycle accident on August 9. It later emerged, however, that police were called to an estate in northern Amiens after they received reports that youths were loading fireworks into a car. Police also discovered the ingredients for petrol bombs, including empty bottles and a canister of gasoline, which led to the arrest.
In response to the August 12-13 riots, about 150 policemen and anti-riot police were deployed to the Fafet neighborhood and used tear gas and rubber bullets, and even mobilized a helicopter after Muslim youths shot at them with buckshot, fireworks and other projectiles from nine in the evening until four in the morning.
At least 16 police officers were injured in the melee, one of them seriously. Youths also torched and destroyed a junior high school canteen, an anti-juvenile delinquency sports room, a leisure center, and a kindergarten, as well as 20 automobiles and 50 trash bins. The cost of repairing or rebuilding structures that were damaged or destroyed could run to €6 million ($7.4 million). (Photos here.)
Gilles Demailly, the Socialist mayor of Amiens, said the violence reflected a descent into lawlessness, orchestrated by ever younger troublemakers: "It has been years since we have known a night as violent as this with so much damage done. The confrontations were very, very violent." He added, "For months I have been asking for the means to alleviate the neighborhood's problems because tension has been mounting here. You have gangs of youths playing at being gangsters who have turned the area into a no-go zone. You can no longer order a pizza or get a doctor to come to the house."
The clashes in Amiens followed more than five days of violence between rival Muslim gangs in Toulouse. Police in the city's Bagatelle district (officially classified as a ZUS "no-go" zone) characterized the Muslim-on-Muslim violence as "a kind of guerilla war" among two gangs whose members are between ages of 15 and 20. The violence was apparently "the result of a settlement of accounts between drug dealers, as well as because of old resentments exacerbated by boredom and the heat of the month of Ramadan."
On August 14, two local imams in Bagatelle organized a march through the streets and called on the youths to stop the violence. Local media reports said the residents of the neighborhood knew the names of the perpetrators but "nobody dares to speak for fear of reprisals." According to the deputy imam of Bagatelle, Siali Lahouari, "it looks as if we are in Bosnia or Afghanistan, not Mirail [a suburb of Toulouse]."
In September, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls officially inaugurated the Grand Mosque of Strasbourg, the second-largest mosque ever built in France. The Strasbourg mega-mosque has a capacity of 1,300 square meters (14,000 square feet) and seats 1,500 worshippers, and is slightly smaller than the massive Grand Mosque d'Évry at Courcouronnes in the southern suburbs of Paris.
At the inauguration ceremony on September 27, Valls said: "France's Muslims can congratulate themselves on the singular model that they are building. The Islam of France shines through the strength of its serenity. The mosque is less than two kilometers from the Notre-Dame Cathedral, giving Islam its full place in France."
But Valls also issued a warning to Islamists: "The preachers of hatred, the partisans of obscurantism, fundamentalists, those who attack our values and our institutions, those who deny the rights of women, those people do not have their place in the French Republic. Those who are on our territory to defy our laws, to attack the foundations of our society do not have to remain there. I will not hesitate to expel those who claim to be of Islam, and represent a grave threat to public order, by not respecting the laws and the values of the French Republic."
In October, tensions flared over the proposed conversion of an empty church into a mosque in the central French town of Vierzon. The controversy involved Saint-Eloi's, a small church located in a working class neighborhood which has been taken over by immigrants from Morocco and Turkey.
With six churches to maintain and fewer faithful every year, Roman Catholic authorities in Vierzon said they could no longer afford to keep Saint-Eloi's. They now want to sell the building for €170,000 ($220,000) to a Moroccan Muslim organization whose members want to convert the church into a mosque.
In an interview with the French weekly newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur, Alain Krauth, the parish priest of the largest Catholic church in Vierzon, said: "The Christian community is not as important as it used to be in the past. If moderate Muslims buy Saint-Eloi's, we can only be happy that the Muslims of Vierzon are able to celebrate their religion." His comments were greeted with outrage by local citizens opposed to converting the church into a mosque.
Also in October, in the nearby city of Poitiers, around 70 members of a conservative youth group known as Generation Identity occupied a mosque that is being built in the heavily Muslim Buxerolles district of the city. The dawn raid on October 21 was intended as a protest against Islam's growing influence in France.
The protesters climbed onto the roof of the mosque (photos here) and unfurled a banner with the symbolic phrase, "732 Generation Identity" -- a reference to the year 732, when Charles Martel halted the advance of the invading Muslim army to the north of Poitiers (also known as the Battle of Tours.)
In November, a new opinion survey found that a majority of people in France believe that Islam is too influential in French society, and almost half view Muslims as a threat to their national identity.
The survey revealed a significant degradation of the image of Islam in France. The findings also showed that French voters are growing increasingly uneasy about mass immigration from Muslim countries which has been encouraged by a generation of political and cultural elites in France dedicated to creating a multicultural society.
The survey conducted by theFrench Institute of Public Opinion(or Ifop, as it is usually called) and published by the center-right Le Figaro newspaper on October 24, showed that 60% of French people believe that Islam has become "too visible and influential" in France -- up from 55% in an earlier survey two years ago.
The poll also revealed that 43% of French people consider the presence of Muslim immigrants to be a threat to French national identity, compared to just 17% who say it enriches society.
In addition, 68% of people in France blame the problems associated with Muslim integration on immigrants who refuse to integrate (up from 61% two years ago), and 52% blame it on cultural differences (up from 40% two years ago).
The poll also showed a growing resistance to the symbols of Islam. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of French people say they are opposed to Muslim women wearing the veil or Islamic headscarves in public, compared to 59% two years ago. Moreover, the survey showed that only 18% of French people say they support the building of new mosques in France (compared to 33% in 1989, and 20% in 2010).
"Our poll shows a further hardening in French people's opinions," Jerome Fourquet, head of Ifop's opinion department, told Le Figaro. "In recent years, there has not been a week when Islam has not been in the heart of the news for social reasons: the veil, halal food, dramatic news like terrorist attacks or geopolitical reasons," he said.
In December, two Muslim groups launched legal proceedings against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, accusing it of inciting racial hatred after it published provocative cartoons of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed on September 19.
Members of the Algerian Democratic Union for Peace and Progress (RDAP) and the Organization of Arab Union said they were claiming a total of €780,000 ($1 million) in damages. They said the lawsuit was to "defend and support Islamic and/or Arabic people." According to the complainants, the drawings were "damaging to the honor and reputation of the Prophet Mohammed and the Muslim community."
Earlier, the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo were destroyed in an arson attack after it "invited" the Prophet Mohammed to be its "guest editor." The November 2011 firebombing attack took place just hours before an issue entitled "Sharia Hebdo," featuring a cartoon of Mohammed on its cover, hit the newsstands.
Both the arson attack and the lawsuit mark a serious escalation in a long-running Islamic war on free speech and expression in France. Muslim immigrants and their multicultural supporters in France and elsewhere have been using a combination of lawsuits, verbal and physical harassment -- and even murder -- to silence debate about the rise of Islam there.