Sarkozy warns against religious "provocation"

Swiss minaret ban stokes debate over Islam in France


President Nicolas Sarkozy warned French believers to refrain from religious "ostentation and provocation" on Tuesday after the Swiss vote to ban minarets stoked debate about Islam in France.

The president made the statement in an opinion piece in Le Monde daily, wading into an increasingly tense debate over national identity that has zeroed in on immigration fears in France, home to Europe's largest Muslim minority.

"Christians, Jews, Muslims, all believers regardless of their faith, must refrain from ostentation and provocation and ... practice their religion in humble discretion," wrote Sarkozy.

"Anything that could appear as a challenge" to France's Christian roots and republican values would lead to "failure" in efforts to promote a form of moderate Islam in France, he warned.

With Islam now the nation's second faith, France has sought to reaffirm its staunchly secular tradition which sees religion as a strictly private affair while seeking to avoid a clash of civilizations within its borders.

"No to the mosque"

A court, meanwhile, on Tuesday banned France's anti-immigrant National Front party from giving out leaflets attacking plans to build a giant mosque because they used pictures of it without permission.

The ruling was to protect the architects' intellectual property, but also came at a sensitive time following Swiss ban on minarets.

The Marseille court ordered the far-right party to destroy all leaflets on which it had reproduced designs for the planned Grand Mosque in the southern city, alongside the slogan "No to the mosque."

It also ordered the National Front to pay 1,500 euros ($2,210) in costs, according to a copy of the judgment.

Despite several local campaigns by the French far right, dozens of mosques are scheduled for construction in France, including a Grand Mosque in Marseille that will have a 25-meter (82-ft) minaret.

The French government has pledged that it will not ban minaret construction and said mayors have the final say on whether new mosques can be built with tall towers, based on urban planning rules.

Sarkozy's opinion piece was published as the National Assembly was due to pick up the debate on national identity after weeks of town hall meetings and public commentary posted on an Internet forum.

Addressing French Muslims directly, Sarkozy pledged to do "everything" to combat discrimination and ensure they can feel like full-fledged citizens of France.

"Instead of condemning the Swiss people, let's try to understand what they are trying to express and what so many nations in Europe are feeling, including the French," he said.

Instead of condemning the Swiss people, let's try to understand what they are trying to express and what so many nations in Europe are feeling, including the French

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Sarkozy maintained that no one in Europe was seeking to deny Muslims their basic right to freedom of religion, but made clear that fears of Islamic radicalism would have to be addressed.

"The peoples of Europe are welcoming and tolerant," he argued. "But they do not want their surroundings, their way of thinking and their social relationships to be distorted."

France's six million Muslims congregate in fewer than 2,500 prayers houses and mosques, many of which are housed in modest halls.

There are currently 64 mosques with minarets in France. Seven of them have "tall minarets," according to Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux.

Responding to the government's ruling, the right-wing mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi has said there will be no minarets build in his Riviera city.

"Minarets are not part the architecture of our country," said Estrosi, who is also the minister for industry.

France has had a long-running debate about how far it is willing to go to accommodate Islam without undermining the tradition of separating church and state, enshrined in a flagship 1905 law.

A French parliamentary inquiry is also holding hearings on whether to bar Muslim women from wearing the full Islamic veil and the "burqa debate" will come to a head next month when the panel hands in its report.

In 2004, France passed a law banning headscarves or any other "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools to defend secularism.

Minarets are not part the architecture of our country

Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi