Muslims of France Have Their Say In Race For President

French is home to an estimated 5 million Muslim citizens
French is home to an estimated 5 million Muslim citizens
Cécile Chambraud

PARIS — A long line stretched in front of Hall 2 of the Bourget Exhibition Center on the outskirts of the French capital last Saturday afternoon, ahead of an annual three-day conference by the Union of Islamic Organizations of France. Fliers announced the topic of the upcoming roundtable: "Eleven candidates in the presidential election, who will you vote for?"

Many in attendance confess that they have not yet made their choice, with just days to go before Sunday's first round of voting. Others, however, have picked their candidate. Leïla has made her decision. She will vote "J.L.M." for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate who has shot up in the polls over the past month.

"This is neither the Right nor the Socialist party," this 32-year-old stay-at-home mom explains. "For five years, the Socialists have not ceased to stigmatize women wearing hijabs. This time, we will show them that these women are not submissive!"

Like many here, Leïla voted in 2012 for Socialist candidate François Hollande, who has been an unpopular president and opted not to seek reelection. Over these past five years in France, which has Europe's largest Muslim population (estimated at 5 million in a nation of 66 million), issues linked to Islam have increasingly dominated debate. Immigration, terrorism and the wearing of Islamic head scarves and hijabs by Muslim women are among the topics that have come up during the current campaign. Still, few have asked what Muslim citizens themselves will do when they go to the polls.

In 2017, voting for the left remains "a fundamental tendency" predominant in the Muslim community, confirms Fatima Khemilat, a doctorate candidate at Science Po Aix university who is studying the Muslim electorate.

But this time may be more split than the vote five years ago. Khemilat notes that the hard-line rhetoric of Manuel Valls, who served as prime minister under Hollande, on the topic of Islam — and particularly on the wearing of hijabs by Muslim women — "has been experienced like a betrayal."

No candidates present

When the Bourget room finally opens its doors for the debate on the presidential election, the organizers bemoan the fact that not one of the 11 presidential candidates sent a representative. The UOIF, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, has been rebranded as the "Muslims of France," but continues to be on the defensive because of regular criticism by right-wing candidates François Fillon and Marine Le Pen against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Muslims have abstained for 30 years, this plays into the hands of those who do not want the Muslim presence in France.

Indeed, among the speakers this past weekend was Camel Bechikh, a Muslim from the political right. He spoke about the "national right" in reference to Le Pen's populist National Front party. "Must we welcome new waves of migrants?" asked this activist known for his past vocal opposition to gay marriage.

For his part, Amar Lasfar, the president of the UOIF, advised that people "not confine themselves just to what a candidate has said about Islam" when choosing for whom to vote. Such a calculation, he said, could lead to a run-off of two right-wing candidates. "Vote!" was the central message from Lasfar, "we will protect France from the threat of the extreme right."

muslim islam paris election montmartre

In Montmartre — Photo: Francisco Osorio

In the room, Ahmed Mcherfi, an official of the Reims region in northeast France, looked back on how Muslims' role in French politics has evolved. "There was a time when we posed the question of whether we could vote. Today, we ask for whom should we vote. It is a sign of integration. Muslims have abstained for 30 years, this plays into the hands of those who do not want the Muslim presence in France."

In attendance with her mother, Fatima is undecided between Mélenchon, Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon and centrist front-runner Emmanuel Macron, saying that there are elements of each that she likes. Ultimately, this civil servant will vote for "the most tolerant, the most just, and the most dynamic" candidate.

New Party

Hannah Zahouani has decided to take her political life to the next step. This 40-year-old business manager and community activist is a candidate in the legislative elections in June for the fifth district of Seine-Saint-Denis, this city on the outskirts of Paris. She had come to the gathering to distribute pamphlets for her brand new party, French And Muslim, which features a "platform based on Muslim ethics and in perfect harmony with values of the (French) Republic."

Claiming to be neither from the political left, right nor center, its proposals range from the establishment of "universal wages' to the integration of the Muslim religion in the 1905 law that separated church and state to a "total respect for modesty before education establishments."

Many of its leaders broke off from the Union of Muslim Democrats of France, after internal disputes following the 2015 regional elections where the party claims to have garnered more than 5% support in election districts in the Ile-de-France region in and around Paris. For the legislative elections this June, which follow the presidential race, there will now be two competing Muslim parties. Competing factions may be the clearest sign of all that Muslims are becoming a regular part of French politics.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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