June 28, 2010 / 12:55 PM / 9 years ago

French PM urges Muslims to reject "hijacked Islam"

* Fillon says extremists oppose Muslim integration

* Says veil ban needed to uphold basic rules of society

By Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS, June 28 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Francois Fillon urged France’s Muslims on Monday to reject full face veils as a sectarian caricature of Islam, a week before parliament debates a law banning burqas and niqabs in public.

Inaugurating a mosque in a northwestern Paris suburb, he said French Muslims should combat a tiny radical minority using face veils as a way to combat the integration of a tolerant Islam that respects the separation of church and state.

“The Islam of France, the Islam you practice daily, has nothing to do with this caricature that dims the lights of your faith,” Fillon, the most senior French politician to inaugurate a mosque in decades, said to applause from the crowd.

“You should stand in the front line against this hijacking of the religious message ... it’s up to you to make intelligence triumph over obscurantism and tolerance over intolerance.”

France’s five-million strong Muslim community, the largest in Europe, has felt increasingly sidelined in the past year as President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government led a public debate over national identity and decided to ban full face veils.

Many French Muslims already consider themselves fully integrated citizens and only a tiny minority wear the all-covering burqas or niqabs that recently have become a butt of hostility in several European countries.

As Fillon spoke, a woman in the western city of Nantes was on trial for driving while wearing a niqab. Police had fined her for wearing a garment that blocked her lateral vision, and the case went to court when she and her husband challenged it.

FILLON RECOGNISES MUSLIM CONCERNS

Fillon defended the plan to ban full veils, saying the government had to defend some groundrules of society.

“This minority practice, which flouts the basic rules of living together and scandalises our citizens, amounts to radical behaviour that does not reflect the reality of Islam,” he said.

The prime minister made clear he recognised Muslims’ concern about a growing trend of anti-Muslim feeling they saw in France, noting that six mosques had been defaced or attacked last year and several Muslim graves vandalised early this year.

“Thirty percent of all acts of racist violence (last year), mostly threats, were made against Muslims,” he said.

Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Muslim Council (CFCM), said Fillon was welcome after the tensions raised by the national identity and veil debates. “His presence is a gesture of recognition and respect,” he told the daily La Croix.

Philippe Doucet, Socialist mayor of suburban town of Argenteuil, where the mosque stands, said the conservative prime minister was making up for the “political mistake” of launching what became emotional debates about identity and veils.

In the trial of the veiled driver, the defendant’s lawyer accused the police of racial profiling and said no law barred drivers from wearing niqabs with only a slit open for the eyes.

“The niqab is no worse than the helmet worn by Formula 1 drivers who spin around the circuits at 320 km/h and yet who can still look in their rearview mirrors,” he said. (Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Guillaume Frouin; Writing by Tom Heneghan, editing by Paul Taylor)

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