France plans crackdown on Islamist presence in troubled areas
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner summoned the country's prefects – the senior officials responsible for government services and policy in each department across France – to his ministry for a seminar on the new plans on Thursday.
Frederic Rose, the head of a government committee on combatting crime and extremism, said that 15 areas had already been identified as being linked to the departure of would-be fighters hoping to join extremist Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq.
A crackdown since last year in those areas had seen 133 bars, nine cultural associations and 13 places of worship closed, Rose said. Authorities were working on tip-offs about places that had become gathering places for extremists or where the country's "founding principles", such as equality, were being undermined.
Suspect businesses and groups could then be examined for any legal violations, including acts of discrimination but also regulatory violations and clandestine employment.
Even though Islamists, like many observant Muslims, usually avoid alcohol, bars could be "places of socialisation linked to the Islamist movement," Rose said. They could also be signalled to authorities if they were engaged in discriminatory behaviour such as refusing to serve alcohol to women or refusing to allow women to be seated outside.
Informal or private religious schools are another area of concern and Rose said four schools or "de facto schools" that did not respect the basic curriculum had also been closed. Rose said results in the 15 selected areas, which he declined to name, had been encouraging and the approach would be rolled out nationwide, coupled with investment in cultural and sporting facilities and education.
But Rose insisted authorities were not targeting Islam or normal Islamic religious practices and were determined to avoid "stigmatising" anyone because of their religion.
Some French Muslims feel that constant public attention to issues such as the headscarf worn by some observant Muslim women amounts to a singling out of their religion. Islamism was a separate issue from the Islamic religion, Rose argued, describing the former as "a doctrine aimed at gaining control of society and the public sphere by pressure or domination and that attacks the freedom of some citizens."
"We know very well that the support of Muslims is our best defence against being accused of lumping different things together," he added.
Asked whether a legal and regulatory crackdown could backfire by creating local grievances if people in affected areas felt targeted, Rose said there were certainly people ready to stir up grievances. (dpa)