- Associated Press - Monday, April 30, 2012

PARIS — They are France’s millions-strong minority with a voice that usually falls silent at election time. But this year, there is a special new effort to mobilize French Muslims to speak up at the ballot box in Sunday’s presidential race — amid a surge of Islam-bashing among the French right.

Imams and Islamic associations are calling on Muslims to do their duty as citizens and go to the polls. And while they’re not officially endorsing anyone, the call itself is a bold move in a country where statistics on religious affiliation are formally banned and where secularism is enshrined in the constitution.

Socialist Francois Hollande — the poll favorite — is more likely to benefit from the get-out-the-vote push, because conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has spoken out against Muslim practices in his campaign and experts say that Muslims in poor neighborhoods and Muslim youth tend to vote for the left. But the Muslim vote is diverse, and there’s no guarantee that the push will bring out voters, since Muslims have tended in the past to avoid politics.

French Muslims have been pounded with blame throughout the campaign for what they eat (halal meat), how they pray (in the street), and for allegedly using their growing numbers to supplant France’s civilization with their own. The massacre of Jewish schoolchildren and French paratroopers in March by an alleged Islamic extremist put Muslims in the spotlight anew and fed far-right fear mongering.

Under the banner of patriotism and preserving the national identity, Sarkozy is trawling for far-right votes as he tries to undo Hollande.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who ran an anti-immigration and anti-Europe campaign and sowed fears that France is being Islamicized, placed a strong third in the April 22 first-round vote. Though she was eliminated, her 18 percent score was a historic high for her National Front party and her supporters could now boost Sarkozy’s support in the runoff.

For some Muslim religious leaders, it is time to act.

“We don’t live on Mars. We live in France and we are constantly listening to what is happening,” said Kamel Kabtane, the rector of the Lyon mosque, who was among a group of imams at some 30 mosques in southeast France pressing Muslims to vote.

“By this initiative, we want to show that Muslims aren’t citizens of the second zone … They can vote for whom they want but be present in the voting booth,” he said.

The more than 5 million Muslims in France — the largest such population in western Europe — could potentially prove a decisive weight for or against a candidate. But experts say their footprint on the political landscape is nearly invisible.

The French model of integration is officially colorblind, demanding that immigrant minorities forgo their customs to meld into the universe of Frenchness. Statistics on race, ethnic origin and religion are formally banned, though researchers find ways to circumvent the rule, like using last names to deduce who is who.

Kabtane said the Muslim get-out-the-vote initiative in southeast France was the first of its kind, although some mosques in the Paris area are also asking Muslims to go to the polls.

In most cases, imams say they make a point not to advise the faithful how to vote. However, an expert on secularism, Jean Bauberot, says the anti-Muslim rhetoric by the right makes the preferred candidate clear — the one on the left.

“In the current atmosphere, Nicolas Sarkozy is doing all he can to alienate the Muslim electorate …,” Bauberot said. “When they (imams) say go out and vote, people think … you shouldn’t vote for Sarkozy.”

For the head of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, such calls to vote are dangerous because they risk dragging a religion into politics, and “I refuse it.”

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