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France Muslim [CNN]

France Muslim [CNN]



French Muslims seek stronger voice

PARIS, France (CNN) -- In the nation with the largest Muslim population in Europe, where one person in 10 identifies with Islam, the political landscape in France is starting to shift.

"We have a new generation which is reaching its 40s, and it makes a big change," says Gilles Kepel, a professor at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris and author of "Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam."

"They want to be represented in the French system politically, not necessarily as Muslims -- I mean religion is not necessarily the criteria -- but they want to be represented as a member of French society today."

Over the past decade those sons and daughters of immigrants who came here mostly from North Africa automatically acquired the right to vote.

What's more, many are upwardly mobile and less willing to accept the political passiveness of their parents.

"The political parties are not at all integrated," says Abderrahmane Dahmane of the Circle of Muslim Democrats.

"In all of France there are only 300 or so elected city officials, a few elected regional officials and zero members of parliament (who are Muslim). Is that normal? Is that democracy? Is that the integration of Muslims? No."

With both presidential and parliamentary elections coming by summer, that sense of exclusion is driving more political activity than ever before in Arab and Islamic communities.

Muslim organizations from across France will gather in Paris later this month to evaluate the platforms and positions of the presidential candidate, picking and choosing their favorites from among them.

More important, perhaps, they intend to lay plans to work for and against candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

While Muslim organizations are not ready, or perhaps not unified enough, to be able to select a list of preferred candidates, there are some clear favorites -- such as Jean Pierre Chevenement, currently polling in third place in the presidential race.

Chevenement, a minister in several past French governments, is highly regarded in some quarters for his passionate support of Iraq, which he proved by resigning his government post during the Gulf War.

Since then, he has improved his ties by consistently taking up the cause of France's Muslims -- something other politicians rarely do except during election campaigns.

"France must understand that it's multiethnic today," says Taoufik Mathlouthi of the Plural France Party. "It's not only European. France is made now by a real melting pot -- a cultural, ethnic melting pot."

March 6, 2002 Posted: 6:08 AM EDT (1008 GMT)
By CNN Senior Correspondent Jim Bittermann