Socialists Shamed by Street Prayers

French Socialists have been shamed into taking a stand on street prayers as the political fallout continued from the controversial and widely condemned remarks by Marine Le Pen, presumptive heiress to the leadership of the Front National, regarding Muslims praying in public places.

Grande Mosquée de Paris. Despite the number of mosques in France Friday prayers have provocatively spilled out onto the streets. (Credit: wallyg)

Socialist Party spokesman, Benoît Hamon, given a rough ride by Jean-Jacques Bourdin during an interview on the French all- news channel BFMTV on December 15 urged affected local authorities to set a timetable for finding a solution to the issue “in the name of secularism”.After some embarrassing political shilly-shallying, the Socialist Party -– still struggling to find a winner for the 2012 presidential race — has been forced into a public stance on street prayers.

This of course as the same secularism advanced by Marine Le Pen in her original remarks. But tackled by Jean-Jacques Bourdin, Hamon hastened to insist that when Marine Le Pen invoked the concept it was merely a smokescreen for the “true Front National target: Islam and immigrants.”

Under close questioning by his TV interlocutor, Hamon said: “these situations cannot be tolerated very much longer,” thus committing his party to end politically embarrassing, religiously provocative and socially disturbing scenes routinely enacted on Fridays in quartiers in Paris, Marseilles and other large French cities.

Watch the video clip here:

Benoit Hamon
envoyé par BFMTV. – L’info video en direct.

Benoît Hamon went on to say “They (the prayers) are creating tensions with local residents and we must find solutions. We must have a discussion, and set a timetable for finding a solution that offers (these people) a indoor space where they can practise their religion, a solution that will once more free-up the public realm.”

“There is no reason why we (the French Republic) should not continue to guarantee our commitment to secularism …. for those holding to secular beliefs, it is unacceptable that we are faced with such situations on our streets, but let me add it is not this issue of secularism that really concerns Marine Le Pen, for her it is Islam and immigrants,” he said.

His statement was potential political dynamite for the French left. “Taking a stand on this issue is absolutely embarrassing to the Socialist Party”, Pouria Amirshahi, national secretary of the PS told Le Monde newspaper. “We must be careful not to divide the French into believers and unbelievers, Catholics and Muslims.”

Bruno Jeanbart, Director of OpinionWay, a political think tank, underlined the delicate nature of the affair. “These issues are extremely sensitive for the Left. In the PS, there are two schools of thought: those who want to rid the party of its complexes about Islam and immigration and those who actively cultivate the taboo. The notable fact that has emerged as result of this statement is that senior figures in the party now clearly want to show that the PS is concerned that some of its voters will support the FN on these very sensitive but deeply worrying issues.”

Daniel Vaillant, a former Minister of the Interior and Religious Affairs and now deputy mayor of Paris’s 18th arrondissement, said he believed the practice of taking over the streets for prayers was “shocking”. It was also puzzling given that two new places of worship for Muslims had been authorised in his district in the past two years. Stressing that he was aware that “the current premises cannot accommodate Islam’s many followers, Vaillant said he preferred, in the meantime, to allow an ” unsatisfactory interim solution” to continue rather than ask the police to ban Muslims from praying in the streets and “risk clashes.”

The Socialist Party’s concerns about voter drift to the Front National, are ironically also those of President Sarkozy’s UMP on the right and possibly a sign that the antennae of the politically brash Front National are far better attuned to the depth of voter concerns than the ideologically constrained bien pensants in the mainstream parties.

Indeed the offensive from the right is not going away any time soon. Hard on the heels of the public breast beating by Benoît Hamon on behalf of the Socialists , the Front National comrades-in-arms, the Bloc Identitaire held a daylong “Assizes against Islamification” convention at Espace Charenton (in Paris’s XIIe arrondissement), attended by conservatives groups from across Europe.

La Dépêche reported that about 1000 people were at the symposium to debate the subject “Focus against the Islamization of Europe”. Speakers from around Europe denounced the “dangers” that Islam posed to countries of the Old Continent.

Outside leftwing groups including SOS Racisme roused some 200 leftist activists to protest about the proceedings. (SOS Racisme might be a little confused if it thinks Islam, a religion, needs to be defended on racial grounds but then it is not alone on the European left in finding it useful to blur the issues).

Fabrice Robert, leader of the Bloc Identitaire said the assizes sought “to show that Islam is a threat to secularism and the values of European civilization”. His group aims to run as a rival to the the Front National in the 2012 election.

“The problem is not that there are not enough mosques, but there are too many Muslims,” he added, calling the day “real success”.

Among leading far right figures addressing the meeting was Oskar Freysinger, of the Swiss People’s Party, which was successful in two recent referenda in banning minarets on Muslim temples in Switzerland and in forcing the deportation of foreign nationals found guilty of offences in Switzerland.

He told the meeting the “dogma” and “religion” of “multiculturalism,” needed to be confronted. “It is only in Europe that we are willing to believe that everyone is nice if you are first nice to them. “

While secularism was repeatedly raised by the speakers, they were also firmly in favour of making a distinction between Christianity and Islam, with multiple references to the threat the march of Islam posed to Western “values”.

Rene Marchand a writer and journalist told the meeting: “A mosque is not a church, because it is not simply a place of prayer it is also a political centre,” .

Outside the event the assorted NPA, Left Party, SOS Racisme, LDH and Attac demonstrators sought to convince passersby that the hall was full of “Le Pen and his fascists”.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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