Ian Traynor, Guardian (London), December 8, 2009
Nicolas Sarkozy today voiced sympathy for Switzerland’s controversial decision to ban the building of Muslim minarets, calling on religious practitioners to avoid “ostentation” and “provocation” for fear of upsetting others.
The French president said he was surprised by the widespread criticism of the outcome of last week’s referendum in Switzerland when 57% voted to proscribe the building of new minarets in a country that has four, and is home to 400,000 Muslims.
Sarkozy’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, promptly denounced the Swiss decision last week, saying he was shocked and scandalised and calling for the ban to be reversed.
But writing in the Le Monde newspaper, Sarkozy defended the Swiss in arguing for the necessity of the contentious debate on national identity he has sponsored in France.
“How can you not be amazed at the reaction that this decision has produced in certain media and political circles in our own country,” Sarkozy said. “Instead of condemning the Swiss out of hand, we should try to understand what they meant to express and what so many people in Europe feel, including people in France.”
He was the first national leader in Europe to offer a detailed opinion on a decision that the Swiss government has criticised as discriminatory and probably illegal, if implemented.
Sarkozy called for discretion from France’s 6 million Muslims, the biggest Muslim community in Europe, in their observance of religion, while pledging to fight all discrimination.
“Christians, Jews, Muslims, all believers regardless of their faith, must refrain from ostentation and provocation and . . . practise their religion in humble discretion.” Muslims would need to find a way of integrating in France “without conflicting with our social and civic pact” while moderate Islam would fail if Muslims sought to challenge the country’s republican value system or Christian heritage.
Sarkozy’s intervention in the Swiss dilemma, Europe’s first direct vote on Islam, came in the midst of the bout of navel-gazing over French national identity launched by his government last month.
Despite much criticism, Sarkozy argued that the Swiss vote showed there was no point in being in denial about such soul-searching. The national identity debate is running in tandem with proposals to ban the burka and critics argue that Sarkozy’s initiative has degenerated into a populist proxy debate on immigration, with the president seeking to outflank the extreme right and steal their votes.
A major conference on national identity is to be held in Paris in February after the debate moved to parliament today, preceded by town hall meetings and heated internet discussions over the past month. Next month parliament is also to consider whether the burka should be banned and in Marseilles there is dispute over the planned construction of a Grand Mosque with a 25-metre minaret.
Martine Aubry, the opposition socialist leader, says Sarkozy is making a calculated attempt to stir xenophobia by calling for the public debates.
The Swiss referendum has attracted much criticism, including from the government and the churches in Switzerland. It singled out Islam for restrictions and is seen as discriminatory and in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
But the Swiss procedure has been seized on by far-right politicians in Italy, Austria, and the Netherlands as exemplary. The vote was unique to the Swiss model of plebiscitary democracy which compels single-issue referendums if 100,000 signatures are collected in an 18-month period.
Such direct single-issue votes are unlikely elsewhere in Europe, but newspaper opinion polls in Spain, France and Germany since last week’s referendum have shown large majorities supporting a ban on minarets.