France to set up foundation to improve Muslim relations

PARIS • France's government has sought to open a new chapter in relations with the country's Muslims following a summer scarred by Islamist attacks and a ban on burkinis that ratcheted up communal tensions.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve on Monday met senior Muslim representatives and agreed that efforts to foster good relations will include the creation of an Islamic foundation, funded solely with money from within France.

Mr Cazeneuve said the foundation would act as a "bridge between the French state and France's Muslims". France's secular laws mean the foundation's scope is limited to areas such as education and research.

But Prime Minister Manuel Valls, speaking later on Monday, urged a fight to defeat what he termed "Islamist totalitarianism", which aimed at "fracturing democracies, stifling individual liberties and installing a new social order in which men dominate women".

Around 30 towns have banned the burkini, the full-body swimming garment, from their beaches, with some mayors linking the bans to the July 14 Islamist lorry attack in Nice that killed 86 and the murder of a Catholic priest near Rouen by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) sympathisers. Several mayors said they would ignore a decision last Friday by the country's top administrative court to suspend the burkini ban in one Riviera town.

The anti-Islamophobia group which spearheaded the legal challenge to the burkini ban said it will go to court this week to force four French Riviera towns - Nice, Menton, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and Frejus - to drop the measure.

Mr Anouar Kbibech, leader of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, said he hoped Monday's talks were the start of a new chapter. "This positive development will put an end to the repulsive saga of the burkini," he said.

The talks will lead to the creation of the Foundation for Islam in France, which will aim to raise funds in France to ensure the transparent sourcing of funds. But the choice of 77-year-old former defence minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement to head it has sparked controversy, with many observers asking why a Muslim was not given the role.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2016, with the headline 'France to set up foundation to improve Muslim relations'. Print Edition | Subscribe