PARIS // Groups from across Europe yesterday gathered in the French capital to give voice to increasingly pronounced anti-Islam sentiments on the continent. Claiming to represent a wide range of political opinion, from Marxists and feminists to hardcore secularists and right-wing activists, the groups said they would coordinate their fight against what they call the Islamisation of Europe.
French Muslim and left-wing groups denounced the gathering that drew about 500 people as divisive. The president of the mainstream French Council of the Muslim Faith, Mohammed Moussaoui, said, “We are strongly in favour of the right to free expression but we feel that such a meeting is a threat to national unity and to our ability to live together.”
He accused the organisers of incitement to hatred but the authorities rejected the council’s appeal to have the meeting banned. The police cordoned off the area near the hall where the gathering took place but only a few dozen people showed up for a counter-demonstration.
Anti-Islam groups have gained political momentum in several European countries in recent years. In Denmark and the Netherlands, political parties with a strong anti-Islam element are crucial in supporting minority governments. And in Sweden, a similar party for the first time crossed the electoral threshold in September.
The key personality of the Paris meeting, unmistakably, was Oskar Freysinger of the Swiss People’s Party who initiated the referendum last year in which the Swiss voted to ban the construction of minarets. The ponytailed politician, who was trailed by bodyguards in bomber jackets and black shades, was mobbed like a rock star by the crowd of mostly middle-aged and elderly Frenchmen and women.
Mr Freysinger said that he was excited to take part in an effort to jointly combat the forces of Islamisation in Europe.
“I do think that the Swiss model can be exported. I think that what we did can be replicated in France,” he said.
The meeting, organised jointly by the right-wing Bloc Identitaire and the nominally Republican left-wing Riposte Laïque, comes amid renewed tensions surrounding the presence of Muslims in France. Like elsewhere in Europe, these centre on a range of issues including demands to stop the construction of new mosques, protests against the conversion of food-outlets to halal only and an emphasis on the rights of women and gays. Less than 18 months away from the next presidential elections, several political blocs in France are taking up the matter.
Last week, Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his likely successor as leader of the ultra right-wing Front National, caused outrage by comparing the overflow of Muslims from mosques into the streets of French cities during Friday prayers with the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.
The Bloc identitaire is a much younger organisation, founded in 2003, but it is planning to run Arnaud Gouillon as its candidate in the 2012 presidential elections. Mr Gouillon is already well-versed in the emerging European anti-Islam discourse. “I am not against Muslims. I am against Islam,” he echoed a line also used by right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders and others. The clash of civilisations theme was also taken up by the sole American speaker at the meeting, Tom Trenton, who founded the Florida Security Council, which bills itself as an educational organisation developed by Floridians who say they understand the extreme seriousness of the various security threats facing both the United States and Florida. Conflict with Muslim countries that promote the introduction of Sharia in the West “is inevitable” he claimed.
Asked whether Islamisation is really an issue in the US, he answered, “maybe in the States we can keep things under control for a while longer but here in Europe I do not know if that’s possible”.
While almost all speakers deplored the idea that they were racist or xenophobic and the organisers had been warned by the police that they would be monitored for such language, many remarks veered from alarmist into the realm of incitement. Both the Dutch and Danish speakers mentioned “gangs of Muslims” roaming the streets of Europe and alleged a link with alleged rape of women.
Mr Moussaoui of the French Council of the Muslim Faith said that the talk of Islamisation was just a cover. “The use of the term is a way of fanning fear among European populations, to make them afraid of losing their identity because of the presence of Muslims.”