When he was French Foreign Minister early last year, Dominique de Villepin forcefully led the fierce diplomatic opposition to U.S. and British plans to attack Saddam Hussein. Now, as his country's Interior Minister following a government reshuffle in April, Villepin is applying the same bold style to countering Islamic radicalism at home. Shortly after taking on his new job, Villepin quickly moved to deport a Lyons-area Islamic preacher. More recently, Villepin has opened deportation proceedings against other radical preachers, including a prominent Turkish religious figure in the Paris area.
It's part of a new, more intrusive government policy toward Islamic fundamentalists. Although France has quietly deported other Islamic radicals in the past, Villepin is now issuing strident statements that imams preaching in France need to "know our language and our culture" -- or face expulsion. "We have to distance ourselves from foreign extremists, who don't have any place on our soil," Villepin said in an early-May interview with Paris daily Le Figaro.
Some dismiss Villepin's tough talk as a bid to burnish his image as rightful heir to President Jacques Chirac in advance of presidential elections in 2007. But the muscular rhetoric is in line with a Europewide crackdown. Late last year, Italy began deportation proceedings against Senegalese, Moroccan, and Algerian Islamists. In April, Home Secretary David Blunkett stripped the British citizenship of Egyptian-born radical preacher Abu Hamza.
Yet France is the key country in the uneasy coexistence between security-conscious European governments and Islamic minorities. Close to 10% of France's population is of Muslim background, a higher share than for any other country in Europe. Thanks to successive waves of immigration to France since the 1950s, Muslims are second only to Roman Catholics as France's leading religious group. It is also the fastest-growing.
"Strong Terrorist Threat"
Paris has adopted a two-track approach to Muslim residents since September 11. It helped them set up a "French Council of the Muslim Cult" to act as the community's official representative in government dealings. At the same time, tougher laws limit Islamic headgear in schools, while authorities are tightening surveillance of the mosques. The Interior Ministry says 27 Islamists have been deported since late 2001, and several terrorist cells have been busted. "We're facing a very strong terrorist threat," says ministry official Véronique Guillermo.
But Villepin's plan to promote an Islam respectful of French secular traditions will be difficult to carry out. Up to half of France's 1,500 imams are foreign, and many don't speak French well. Training Francophone imams will take years, and Muslim communities may not accept them. "It's naive to think we can have a French Islam with government training," says Vincent Geisser, an Aix-en-Provence researcher on Muslim communities.
A more effective policy of countering radicalism, Geisser thinks, is to make French political life more representative. Not one of France's 577 deputies or 313 senators has a Muslim background. The risk Villepin runs in stressing the stick over the carrot is that French Muslims will be more -- not less -- tempted by radicalism.
By John Rossant, with Adeline Bonnet, in Paris
Edited by Rose Brady