- - Thursday, April 19, 2012

PARIS — France’s Muslim community is mobilizing voters to reject President Nicolas Sarkozy in Sunday’s election to punish the conservative leader for his anti-immigrant and anti-Islam rhetoric.

“[French] Muslims can’t stand it anymore. They are fed up with these debates about national identity, halal meat, the veil or fundamentalism all over the place,” said Francoise Lorcerie, a sociologist with the Institute of Studies on the Arab and Muslim World near Marseille.

“The terms [Islam, immigration and fundamentalism] are being used interchangeably, without care, with people being targeted, denigrated and used for [votes].”

The debates and rhetoric aren’t new and have been at the heart of French political campaigns for the past decade.

Muslims - especially those living in the “banlieues,” France’s poor immigrant suburbs - sometimes have been courted by candidates with promises of jobs and better living conditions, but they mostly have been stigmatized as threats to the French identity, analysts say.

The rhetoric escalated last month after Mohammed Merah, a French-born Muslim who claimed to be inspired by al Qaeda, killed seven people in a shooting spree.

Mr. Sarkozy, of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, called for tightening immigration because there are “too many foreigners” in France.

Marine Le Pen, the presidential candidate of the far-right National Front party, talked about “green fascism” (a reference to the color of Islam) and wondered “how many Mohammed Merahs are arriving on boats and planes each day, filling France with immigrants.”

In the banlieues

The speeches infuriated French Muslims and reignited the debate over origins and identity. As Europe’s largest Islamic community, French Muslims account for as much as 10 percent of the country’s 65 million people.

Merah was born in France. He did not come by boat or plane, but everyone talks about his origins, despite his being French,” said Mohamed Mechmache, president of AC Le Feu, a community association working to improve conditions in the banlieues. “The French Republic has not been fair: She has forgotten some of her children.”

Mr. Mechmache says what residents of the banlieues really need are education and jobs, not a fight over Islam: The youth unemployment rate is above 45 percent in some of the neighborhoods.

In November, AC Le Feu launched an initiative to warn candidates about addressing the situation in these districts. It is working with Muslim community groups to get out the “Muslim vote” in the banlieues, which have had nonparticipation rates as high as 50 percent in some elections.

“There has been so much disillusion, deception and unfulfilled promises that there is a general climate of mistrust in our neighborhoods,” Mr. Mechmache said. “People say, ‘There is no point voting.’ We tell them they have the opportunity to change things.”

In a notice to its members, the Union of Muslim Families of Bouches du Rhone (UFM13), an apolitical association, asked voters to “punish arsonists … who by calculation and political maneuvers have thrown Muslims, inner-city youths, the unemployed and foreigners to the mob.”

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