Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, is a champion of his country’s Republican values, forged in the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. He was quick to declare that he was shocked and scandalized by the result of the Swiss referendum last month which backed a ban on the building of minarets.
But one of the men who shares the same cabinet table as him, the Industry Minister, Christian Estrosi has a radically different attitude.
He also happens to be the Mayor of Nice - a minaret-free zone - and he’s vowed to keep it that way.
The issue has arisen in the midst of a government-sponsored national debate on what it means to be French. It’s a debate that has had some unfortunate side-effects. It has allowed the country’s xenophobes to emerge from under their stones and give their extremist views the oxygen of publicity.
The Mayor though is an eloquent convert to that debate, speaking amidst the elegant frescoes of his City Hall he told me:
“Why not always nourish the debate around the humanist vision of France so that everybody can feel proud to be French, to share the same national identity? Look at me… I’m the son of an immigrant.”
President Nicolas Sarkozy has refused to condemn the result of the referendum in Switzerland and has called on all believers to practice discretion in their religious observance.
He has said politicians should start trying to understand what so many people in Europe - and in France - are now feeling. The President’s political opponents accuse him of a poorly camouflaged attempt to steal some the extreme right’s clothes with local elections due in just three months time.
Nationalists in Nice like Phillipe Vardon don’t mince their words: “ Minarets are just the visible tip of an iceberg of Islamisation - like burkas in the streets of France, halal meals being served in prisons, schools and hospitals. It’s becoming almost obligatory,” he told me.
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