Don't Let Me Stop You

What the heck, you'll do what you want anyway.

Marseille

Posted by Dan Draney on November 22, 2005

As many cities around France were embroiled in riots, was relatively quiet. However, several years ago Marseille was one of the first French cities to experience this sort of unrest. A front page article today in the Wall Street Journal (unfortunately, subscription only) takes a closer look at how “Marseille Seeks Calm by Blurring Church-State Line:”

“Marseille would seem ripe for revolt. Its unemployment rate is 14%, one-third higher than the national average. Its 800,000 people include a higher proportion of immigrants — many of them jobless — than any other major French metropolis. It has some of France’s most militant trade unions. And it is polarized. About one-quarter of the population is Muslim, mostly of North African descent, while more than 20% of voters support the anti-immigrant far-right National Front party.

Marseille has had trouble shaking a reputation for lawlessness that, in 1971, made it a setting for the hit movie, ‘The French Connection.’ Even in ordinary times, says the mayor, five to 10 cars get set alight each day. The daily count rose to more than 20 at the peak of the unrest. Nonetheless, Marseille didn’t see the level of turmoil experienced in Paris’s bleak ghettoes, and didn’t resort to the curfews and massive police deployments used elsewhere.”

The mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin, has “quietly” broken with the strict secularism that is a hallmark of the French idea of government. You may recall last year’s controversy over the French ban from public schools of the hajib, the headscarf worn by some Muslim women. From an American perspective one wonders why such a general ban would even have been considered, but to the French it was “obvious” that secularism required the ban.

As militant as the French are about “separation of church and state,” there are some bizarre elements to the way they have implemented the concept. For example, the governments own all the church buildings in the country, and tax money is used for upkeep. This dates back to a power struggle between the church and the government that ended in 1905. The government won (obviously) and banned state funding or recognition of religion, while at the same time nationalizing all religious buildings. This apparently was a way to assert some governmental control over church policies. It’s hard to see how this can be called “separation of church and state.” It’s more like a hostile takeover.

Mr. Gaudin has softened the rules for Marseille, allowing a role (and some money) for religious groups of all kinds. Like most French, Gaudin is a Catholic. Unlike most French, he’s a practicing Catholic.

“The city first reached out to religious leaders in 1990 by setting up Marseille Esperance, a body that groups the local leaders of seven faiths. With a small staff paid by city hall, it is credited with helping calm tempers after the 1995 murder of a Muslim student by far-right extremists and after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Its role is mostly symbolic, says Aberahmane Ghoul, the recently elected head of a Marseille Muslim council, but ‘symbolism is not a game. It is very important.’

After years of complaints by Muslims that Marseille had no grand mosque, the mayor in 2001 offered a large building on the grounds of a disused slaughterhouse. The city said it wouldn’t give away the property, but, to skirt a ban on direct state support for religion, it would lease it for 99 years at a token rent. The far right denounced the offer, saying immigrants shouldn’t be encouraged to stay. Strict secularists also complained, as did some Muslims who said the slaughterhouse had made the land unclean. The project remains stalled by squabbling between rival Muslim groups.”

One might ask why the Muslims couldn’t simply build a Mosque on their own without direct government assistance. The answer is: they are not allowed to do so.

“The city’s effort contrasts sharply with the approach taken by Nice, which lies 95 miles to the east. For years, local authorities and residents there have thwarted attempts by Muslims to open a mosque. ‘Mosques, as places of worship, have no place in a secular republic,’ Nice’s mayor wrote in 2000 in a letter that surfaced in the press. When Muslims moved recently to rent a commercial property for use as a mosque, the mayor, citing the rise of radical Islam and urban riots, vowed to block the rental. Nice, though much wealthier than Marseille, was hit by recent unrest and imposed a curfew on minors.”

Nice’s mayor shows where the aggressive, anti-religious mindset eventually leads. He thinks places of worship have “no place in a secular republic?” Freedom of religion evidently, in his view, requires elimination of religion entirely from everywhere in the country. Not even the ACLU calls openly for an outright ban on religion in the US today (“openly” being the key word in that sentence).

Marseille is certainly not out of trouble in the integration of its Muslim immigrants. Mr. Gaudin seems to be sitting on a bit of a powder keg, but he’s clearly doing some things right. We wish him well.

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