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+ Overview

There are 4 to 5 million Muslims in France out of a total population of about 60 million. About 60 percent of French Muslims are citizens; the majority emigrated from North Africa, particularly Algeria and Morocco, or Turkey. France's Muslim immigrants were drawn to the country to take part in post-World War II reconstruction, and more recently, to escape the violent civil war in Algeria, a former French colony. Much of the Muslim population lives in the banlieues, which were built outside of the major cities by the government as temporary housing after World War II for immigrant workers.

Prayers at an overcrowded mosque in suburban Paris.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) was established in 2003 to act as a liaison between the Muslim community and the government. With 25 affiliates, it is headed by a moderate imam from the Grand Mosque of Paris. The Union of Islamic organizations of France (UIOF) is another powerful organization in the country, with direct control over 30 mosques and indirect control of 150-200 more, putting it on par with the jurisdiction of Paris' Grand Mosque. Although it denies any formal link, the UIOF draws its inspiration from Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood.

French society steadfastly holds to laïcité, its traditional, strictly-enforced secularism. The most notable application of this century-old law is the passage in March 2004 of a law banning religious symbols -- including Muslim headscarves -- in public schools. Although most students complied with the ban, the Muslim community reacted with protests and lawsuits on behalf of those girls who refused to comply. The law is due for review a year following its date of effect.

Former Interior Minister and current Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has also tested laïcité by proposing that the government fund the construction of mosques. Proposals for new mosques are sometimes met with public protest as Muslims struggle to be accepted. 33 percent of North African Muslims are unemployed, compared to the national average of 10.2 percent. The French Association against Islamophobia reported 101 complaints of discrimination for the period between September 2003 and July 2004. Following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the Madrid train bombings on March 11, 2004, Muslims were increasingly the victims of suspicion and questioning from law enforcement, and racially-motivated threats and violence have been on the rise.

+ Major Terrorist Plots and Arrests

+ On Christmas Eve, 1994, members of the GIA, an Algerian terrorist group, hijacked an Air France jet and planned to crash it into the Eiffel Tower. French commandos stormed the plane when it stopped to refuel in Marseilles, killing the four hijackers and rescuing the 170 passengers. The GIA said it ordered the hijacking to punish France for its support of the Algerian government in Algeria's civil war.

+ In the summer and fall of 1995, a wave of bombings hit the Paris metro system, killing eight and wounding 200. In October 2002, two GIA members were sentenced to life in prison in for their role in the attacks.

+ In 1998, French counterterror judge Jean-Louis Bruguiére and others uncovered a plot against the World Cup soccer tournament. Around 150 suspects were detained in sweeps in multiple European countries and several people were convicted for their roles in the plot.

+ Islamic militants planned to blow up the famous Christmas Market in Strasbourg on New Year's Eve 2000; cooperation between French and German police helped uncover the plot. In December 2004, 10 Algerians and French nationals of Algerian descent were convicted for the plot and sentenced to between one and 10 years in prison.

+ On Sept. 10, 2001, French authorities opened an investigation into a plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Paris. Djamel Beghal, a French-Algerian, was arrested in Dubai in July 2001. Authorities there said he confessed to planning the attack, but Beghal later claimed his confession was extracted under torture. In March 2005, Djamel Beghal and five others were convicted by a French court of conspiring to carry out the Paris embassy plot, and Beghal was sentenced to the maximum 10 years. Counting time already served since his initial arrest, Beghal is due to be released in 2011.


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posted jan. 25, 2005

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