France rejects link between Islam and extremism
PARIS - French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stressed on Monday there was no link between extremism and Islam, as he opened a conference aimed at improving ties with France's large Muslim community.
"We must say all of this is not Islam," said Valls. "The hate speech, anti-Semitism that hides behind anti-Zionism and hate for Israel... the self-proclaimed imams in our neighbourhoods and our prisons who are promoting violence and terrorism."
Five months after the jihadist attacks in Paris that killed 17 people and shocked the world, the forum held Monday was the first of a series of meetings the government plans to hold with top officials from the roughly five million-strong Muslim community, the largest in Europe.
Since the January attacks, France has seen a spike in reports of anti-Muslim acts, including a three-fold rise in vandalism targeting mosques.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told the around 120 Muslim community leaders and top government officials at the forum that the full extent of anti-Muslim violence and threats was underestimated because victims do not always come forward.
"I would like us to fight together against this feeling of resignation," he said. "Victims must report the acts and threats to which they are subjected."
Leaders also debated security at religious sites, the image of Islam in the media and the building of new mosques.
There are some 2,500 mosques in France, with another 300 projects underway, but creating new Muslim places of worship has sometimes prompted fierce opposition from local residents and right-wing politicians.
In one case, the mayor of the Parisian suburb of Mantes-la-Ville, who belongs to France's far-right National Front party, has repeatedly tried to halt a project to turn a city-owned site into a mosque.
The president of a leading French Muslim organisation told the forum it was time for the government to act.
"Today the situation calls for renewed attention from public powers. This forum is an opportunity for us to express our discomfort with being lumped together" with Islamists, said Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Muslim Council (CFCM).
Those responsible for jihadist attacks "belong to a different world than we do", he added.
Cazeneuve pledged to provide ongoing security for mosques, about 1,000 of which are currently under some type of police protection.
"I want to provide you with my total commitment to protect your places of worship as long as threats exist," said Cazeneuve.
Radicalisation, however, was not on the agenda for the half-day gathering at the interior ministry, which said putting it on the table would send "the wrong message to the French and to the Muslim community."
The gathering is a tricky exercise for the government because it is seeking to improve dialogue with the Muslim community while trying to avoid looking like it is singling it out.
When former French president Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing opposition party held an internal meeting earlier this month on the "question of Islam" in France, it drew criticism from Muslim groups and some members of the party for "stigmatising" the religion.
Valls aimed to strike a different note, telling the forum that Islam is part of French society.
"Islam still provokes misunderstandings, prejudices, and is rejected by some citizens," the prime minister said.
"Yet Islam is here to stay in France. It's the second largest religious group in our country."