French Muslims feel stigmatised in vote debate


When police kicked in Mohamed Asbol’s at dawn and hauled away his son on suspicion of being an Islamist radical, he saw it as further proof that he was not considered fully French.
The 64-year-old was born in Algeria but came to France as a teenager, took French nationality, worked for decades as a welder, paid his taxes and quietly brought up his family in the northern city of Roubaix. But, he insisted, as a friend arrived to help him fix the door on his modest red-brick terraced house, he is still seen as an outsider and he believes the policies of President Nicolas Sarkozy are reinforcing that prejudice.
“They broke my dignity. I am disappointed with France. It’s obvious that he is stigmatising Muslims to get votes,” said Asbol, just a week before the first round of voting in France’s presidential election.
“Just because my son has a beard, wears a djellaba and goes to the mosque doesn’t mean he’s a terrorist!” he said, indignantly.
His 28-year-old son Said’s arrest came during a series of police raids on April 4 that netted 10 individuals in cities across France.
The first wave netted deactivated assault rifles and other weapons and a number of people were kept in custody on terrorist-linked charges. But the second round, conducted under the glare of deliberately invited television cameras, came to nothing. Said Arbol and the nine others were released without charge.
This led to claims that Sarkozy was using the raids to burnish his tough-guy anti-immigrant credentials and to poach votes from erstwhile supporters of the anti-immigrant National Front party.
Such criticism is particularly trenchant in Roubaix, a city of around 95,000 people on the Belgian border that has the biggest ethnic mix of any French city outside Paris and also happens to be France’s poorest town.
Many of the city’s residents are Muslim, and many feel particularly angry at Sarkozy, who bluntly announced last month in his first major campaign interview that there were “too many foreigners” in France.
Sarkozy has consistently trailed his Socialist rival Francois Hollande in the opinion polls.
“They have attacked us on all fronts — the burqa, halal meat, young people,” said 34-year-old Moussa Gacem as he stood behind the counter at the Roubaix snack bar where he worked.
Gacem, a French national born here of North African parents, was referring to a law Sarkozy passed banning the full-face veil that had been worn by a tiny minority of Muslim women in France.
Sarkozy has also sparked protests from both Jewish and Muslim leaders, who complained that their communities were being used as pawns in the election, after the president criticised the production of halal and kosher meat.
“If Islam can be used as a target then Sarkozy will do that,” said Gacem.