France’s Socialist government vowed Thursday to do more to integrate the country’s Muslims but warned that it would not tolerate the country becoming a hotbed of Islamic radicalism.
In a speech marking the inauguration of the Strasbourg Grand Mosque, the biggest Islamic place of worship ever built on French soil, Interior Minister Manuel Valls pledged to come down hard on extremists, warning that foreign activists trying to stir up trouble would be immediately deported.
But he also held out an olive branch to the country’s four million Muslims by promising state help for the construction of more mosques and for the training of Muslim clerics.
Valls, whose rhetoric has frequently drawn comparisons with that of rightwing former president Nicolas Sarkozy, praised French Muslims for their measured response to the recent publication of a satirical weekly’s publication of cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Mohammed.
“Islam has its place in France because the Islam of France, it is a part of France,” he told representatives of the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant communities attending the official opening the mosque capable of hosting 1,500 people.
Relations between the French state and a Muslim community that has its roots in former colonies Algeria and Morocco have been strained in recent years by a string of controversies pitting their faith against France's secular tradition.
Legislation introduced under Sarkozy which bans women from wearing full veils in public is widely resented and long-running debates over halal methods of animal slaughter and whether public prayers should be authorized have added to tensions linked to the economic marginalization of many Muslims.
Concern over the development of radicalism among some young French Muslims has meanwhile intensified in the aftermath of Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah’s killing of seven people in the southern city of Toulouse earlier this year.
It is in this context that Valls has adopted much of the rhetoric deployed by Sarkozy during his time in office.
He warned Thursday that he would not “hesitate to expel those who claim to follow Islam and represent a serious threat to public order and, as foreigners in our country, do not respect our laws and values.”
He also made it clear that the Muslim community as a whole had to accept responsibility for tackling extremism, which he linked to a reemergence of anti-Semitism in the country.
“France’s Muslims can congratulate themselves on the singular model that they are building,” Valls said. “Of course it remains fragile, not every problem has been solved or overcome.”
“If all religions have their share of fundamentalists, it is in Islam that this raises fears. It was on French soil and with a French passport that Mohammed Merah killed in the name of Islam.”
“Anti-Semitism is a terrible scourge and its resurgence cannot be disguised.”
Built within two kilometers (just over a mile) from Strasbourg’s celebrated cathedral, the new mosque has a capacity of 1,300 square meters (14,000 square feet), making it 1.5 times as big as the previous largest one in France, at Evry in the Paris suburbs.
It has a 16-meter copper dome but no minaret and has taken nearly two decades to complete since the project was first launched in 1993.
The cost of construction was 10.5 million euros ($13.5 million), with the local region and the governments of Kuwait, Morocco and Saudi Arabia all contributing.