Gavin Mortimer Gavin Mortimer

Why the French favour secularism over appeasement in the fight to defeat Islamic extremism

In the apartment block next to mine in Paris there are two Muslim families. One I see often: the dad dresses in jeans and a t-shirt, and when the weather is good he’s in the park playing with his kids. So, too, the mum: a stylish woman who matches her headscarves to whatever else she wears with the effortless chic of a Parisian. I see less of the other family: the husband dresses in the white robes of a Salafist and never goes to the park with his child. I’ve seen his wife only once. The two families are emblematic of the fight France faces to defeat Islamic extremism. It will be a long fight. In a report in its weekend magazine earlier this month, Le Figaro said:

‘Perhaps, in fifty years, the secularisation of Islam will have occurred, but it will be necessary to go through ten years of high tension’.

Francois Hollande alluded to this tension in comments publicised last week from a book by two journalists from Le Monde:

‘It’s true there is a problem with Islam. Nobody doubts that…it’s not that Islam is a problem because it’s a religion that is in itself dangerous, but because it wants to assert itself as a religion on the Republic.’

How best to deal with the ‘problem’ of Islam is one of the key campaign issues ahead of May’s French presidential election. Nicolas Sarkozy has already ramped up his rhetoric. While Sarkozy’s main centre-right rival, Alain Juppé, has adopted a more conciliatory approach in the hope of attracting centre-left voters disenchanted with Hollande’s ruling Socialist party. The 71-year-old Juppé warned in September that France was in danger of sliding ‘towards a civil war’. His words were a rebuke to some of Sarkozy’s more inflammatory statements, but they will have resonated with many in France who are alarmed at the threat posed by the rise of hardline Islamic ideology.

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