Tensions grow for Muslims as French debate national identity

Castres, France - When Muslim worshipers showed up at the Bilal Mosque early Sunday morning, they found two pig's ears and a poster of the French flag stapled to the door; a pig's snout dangled from the doorknob. "White power" and "Sieg heil" were spray-painted on one side, they recalled, and "France for the French" on the other.

The desecration of the main mosque in Castres, a tranquil provincial town 50 miles east of Toulouse, was an ugly exception in generally easygoing relations between the native French population and a pocket of about 10,000 Muslims, mostly Algerian immigrants and their children, who in recent years have made Castres their home, according to Muslim as well as native French residents. Mayor Pascal Bugis was quick to condemn the outrage, visiting the scene to express dismay, and police vowed a swift arrest of those responsible.

But for Abdelmalek Bouregba, head of the Castres Islamic Association, which administers the mosque, the vandalism was a troubling sign of the times. Signals are flashing everywhere that France is increasingly uneasy with its more than 5 million Muslims, he said, and the atmosphere has soured particularly since President Nicolas Sarkozy's government last month began what it calls "a great debate on national identity."

In parallel with the government-organized debate, he noted, a parliamentary committee is holding hearings to determine whether legislation is necessary to forbid Muslim women from wearing full veils in public. Its chairman, André Gerin, said at a session Wednesday that such veils are "barbaric." Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, a confidant of Sarkozy's, urged a ban in public buildings, such as town halls and hospitals, saying that "there is no place in France for burqas."

Some legislators from Sarkozy's coalition, the Union for a Patriotic Movement, have proposed a law to forbid foreign flags during immigrant weddings in city halls. And a small-town mayor from the Sarkozy coalition, André Valentin, warned during a government-sponsored national identity debate last week that "we are going to be gobbled up" unless something is done to halt the influx of immigrants, who he said "are paid to do nothing."

"All this encourages this kind of thing," Bouregba said at his mosque. "This gives ideas to extremists. Otherwise, they might have anti-Muslim ideas, but they would never act on them. . . . In my view, the national identity debate has stoked tensions."

The government-endorsed French Council for the Muslim Religion issued a similar warning the day after the desecration here was discovered. "The exploitation of these debates by some people presents a real danger of stigmatization against France's Muslims," it said. Outside the Muslim world, SOS Racism, a nongovernmental advocacy group, deplored what it called the "liberation of racist expressions, a liberation that the national identity debate permits and organizes."

The Socialist Party, France's main opposition group, called on Sarkozy to close the debate before it does further damage. Even within the governing coalition, some parliamentary figures not closely tied to Sarkozy also suggested it is becoming a Pandora's box.

A recent poll taken for the Nouvel Observateur magazine showed that 55 percent of those queried think the debate is at best unnecessary. Another 42 percent expressed fear that it has gone off in the wrong direction, focusing on problems caused by Muslims and immigrants rather than on what it means to be French.

The president, however, has portrayed his decision to launch the debate as a noble undertaking, a necessary expression of French people's feelings, and has shown no sign of backing down. After Swiss voters decided in a referendum Nov. 29 to ban construction of minarets, he issued a statement saying such unease was understandable, calling on Europe's Muslims to avoid ostentatious displays of their beliefs lest they jolt the continent's Christian traditions.

Eric Besson, Sarkozy's minister of immigration, integration and national identity, has been managing the debate and has also been assigned to sum up its conclusions in a major speech in two months. That, critics pointed out, will be just before March's regional elections, in which Sarkozy's coalition hopes to sweep up votes that normally would go to the ultra-right National Front, the country's main anti-immigration political movement.

Anti-Muslim vandalism has long occurred occasionally in France but the Interior Ministry did not respond to a query about how many desecrations were on record this year and whether the number has risen.

Formerly a farm building on the edge of town, the Castres mosque is surrounded by a Christian cemetery, with rows of crosses and statues of angels. It was remodeled in 1986 with Moorish tiles around the entrance and glass chandeliers for what became the main prayer room, which attracts about 300 worshipers for Friday prayers.

Before that, Muslims here had gathered to pray on Fridays in a church hall made available by a Roman Catholic priest.

The town's Christian origins are clear -- Christmas carols from town hall loudspeakers float over the main square -- but Muslims here have not encountered widespread hostility, Bouregba said. Only twice before in the mosque's 23 years of operation had vandals spray-painted slogans on the outside wall, he recalled, and once a pig's head was fixed to the gate.

Encouraged by their growing numbers, Castres Muslims this year began raising funds to build a new mosque. Bouregba, who works for city hall in a youth center and signs his e-mails "French citizen," said plans call for a considerably larger facility to include classrooms, a conference hall and perhaps a tea room "to embellish the situation of our religion in the community."

Although negotiations are under way with the proposed site's owner, there has been no sign of organized opposition. At a neighborhood meeting last week, however, homeowners questioned whether it was a good idea to build a mosque so close to a nearby public school, according to the weekly newspaper Ici Castres.

"It is a logical question," Bouregba said, declining to qualify it as a sign of hostility.