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Last Updated: Monday, 31 May, 2004, 18:25 GMT 19:25 UK
Expulsions fuel French Muslim fears
France has recently expelled a number of Muslim prayer leaders whom it considered to be a dangerous influence on France's five million Muslims.

BBC Paris correspondent Caroline Wyatt has been to the southern city of Marseilles, the port with the longest history of north African immigration to France, to ask French Muslims for their response.

Nacera Saoudi helps her daughters do homework
Nacera Saoudi believes life has changed for the worst for French Muslims
In a high-rise block in the north of Marseilles, Nacera Saoudi is helping her daughters Iman and Dounya do their homework.

She came to France from Algeria when she was two years old and, for her and her family, Marseilles is home. Her husband works at an employment agency, and her father fought on the French side in the Algerian war.

Yet Nacera fears that life has changed for the worse for Muslims in France, with Islam viewed with suspicion since the 11 September 2001 attacks.

"We feel as if we're being pointed out as the guilty ones - even we Muslim people living here in France feel as if we are somehow held responsible for the climate of insecurity which prevails in much of the West now," she tells me.

And for moderate Muslims in France, Nacera admits, there is an added fear - that more fundamentalist forms of Islam are seeking a foothold here, and often finding it among younger Muslims in the smaller mosques.

"Ten or 15 years ago, we were living a peaceful form of Islam in France, and all of a sudden foreign influences came in and are changing things. Imams are coming from Afghanistan or Pakistan, going in to the little mosques in Marseilles, preaching another Islam, an Islam we didn't know before," she says.


She has stopped going to the mosque where she used to worship, because of what she saw as the radical message being preached there. But Nacera says that most Muslims in France want and try to integrate, and it is only a tiny minority which is listening to that new, often anti-Western message.

There are very orthodox people in all religions - but extreme doesn't necessarily mean dangerous
Youcef Mammery
Marseilles Council of Muslims
There is no doubt that France is worried by this new development. The French authorities have responded by deporting at least four prayer leaders, or imams, whose preaching they deemed inflammatory.

Among them was Abdelkader Bouziane, an imam in a suburb of Lyon who said publicly that the Koran allowed husbands to beat unfaithful wives. He was deported to Algeria, but has been allowed back into France after local authorities challenged the deportation.

But other imams have been forced to leave for allegedly supporting terrorism, and will not be allowed back.

Abdelkader Bouziane being expelled from France
Abdelkader Bouziane's deportation was challenged
While Nacera believes France is well within its rights to expel those whose preaching contravenes French law, others are not so convinced.

Youcef Mammery of the Marseilles Council of Muslims believes such measures are simply racism by another name. He is a 33-year-old Frenchman whose parents emigrated to Marseilles from Algeria. For him, much of what is being done in the name of the war against terror is unjustifiable.

"There are very orthodox people in all religions, who live life on the margins of modern society. But extreme doesn't necessarily mean dangerous. The imam who was expelled recently wasn't very clever but it wouldn't be fair to say he was dangerous," he says.

He blames a mixture of factors. He says French politicians use this chance to clamp down to attract more votes while trying to see off any challenge from the far right. He also believes that French TV and the newspapers often report a one-sided view, with too few Muslim politicians or religious leaders asked for their opinion.

Radicalisation risk

On the surface at least, at the regular Thursday market in the north of the city, the majority of Marseilles' Muslims seem well-integrated into the fabric of the city, with Halal butchers next door to typically French bistros, and mosques, synagogues and churches co-existing peacefully.

It's very hard to find a job if you have an Arabic name - there are little things they use in job adverts, signs that they only want French French to apply
Nacera Saoudi
But beneath it is a different story. Unemployment in France is at 10%, but among those of Arab or North African heritage it is almost double. Nacera Saoudi says she has been unable to find a job for many years, despite her fluency in French, English, Arabic, Spanish and Italian, a fact she puts down to prejudice.

"If you hear French people when they're together talking about Arabs here in Marseilles, they use racial words," she says. "It's very hard to find a job if you have an Arabic name... There are little things they use in job adverts, signs that they only want French French to apply."

The French authorities say they are doing all they can to stop racism while trying to fight the war on terror. They say increased vigilance, be it extra document checks on the street or the expulsion of radical imams, is not aimed against Muslims but at keeping France safe from attack.

Headscarf law

Mr Mammery disagrees, and warns that France runs the risk of radicalising many young Muslims who feel increasingly unwelcome within French society.

"There was racism against Muslims here before but it's got worse because of the confusion today of Islam and Muslims with terrorism," he says. "The debate about banning headscarves in schools purported to be about a secular society, but really it was questioning Islam."

The law banning religious symbols, including the Islamic headscarf, from French state schools will take effect from September. Some believe it will be very hard to enforce, with legal challenges already being prepared by some Muslim parents.

Like much of Western Europe, France is finding it hard to keep a balance between the need for increased security and the need for tolerance and freedom of expression which most communities here cherish.

And even in the normally easy-going port city of Marseilles, many French Muslims say the balance is now tipping the wrong way.

The BBC's Caroline Wyatt
"Having a muslim name can make it impossible to find work"

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