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French Muslims Influence Government Policy on Iraq


The French government's opposition to a war on Iraq is strongly supported by most people living in France. That includes some five million Muslims, many of them ethnic Arabs, who comprise almost 10 percent of the country's population. These Muslims, along with France's long-standing interests in the Middle East, may help explain President Jacques Chirac's call for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Hamid Kaci, 31, who owns a dry-cleaning shop in northern Paris. is a strong supporter these days of France's conservative president, Jacques Chirac. Mr. Kaci, who was born in the region of Kabylia in northern Algeria, does not have French nationality, so he cannot vote in France.

Mr. Kaci says Mr. Chirac is absolutely right in opposing a U.S.-led campaign to threaten force against Iraq. He says Iraq is not nearly as much of a threat as North Korea.

Mr. Kaci is hardly alone in voicing such sentiments. A series of recent polls show 70-80 percent of French oppose a war against Iraq.

Most of France's five million Muslims are ethnic North Africans. They comprise Europe's largest Muslim population.

It is a population, French politics professor Paul Godt says, that Mr. Chirac cannot afford to ignore.

"Certainly, five million Muslims in France weighs for something," he said. "The French government would be derelict if it didn't take into consideration the possible reactions within France of, and internationally, that could unnecessarily provoke a reaction" among that community.

Indeed, long before the threat of war, most French politicians began courting the country's ethnic Arab population. During presidential elections last year, for example, Mr. Chirac was among many candidates actively seeking the vote of second-generation French Arabs, known informally as beurs.

After his victory, analysts point out, the president appointed two ethnic Arabs to key cabinet positions. And these appointments have not gone unnoticed in France's Muslim community.

Abdelaziz Chambi, a second-generation Arab, is the spokesman for the Union of Young Muslims in France, an activist group based in Lyon. Like many French Muslims, Mr. Chambi traditionally voted for leftist parties, but in last year's elections, he supported Mr. Chirac and also supports his stand on Iraq.

Mr. Chambi says he does not believe the Bush administration's policy toward Iraq is motivated by oil interests or simply a desire to get rid of Saddam Hussein. He believes U.S. President George W. Bush wants to limit the political power of Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East. By contrast, Mr. Chambi says, Mr. Chirac's Middle East policy is more balanced.

French business and political ties in Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, stretch back decades. As prime minister in 1974, Mr. Chirac visited Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. French oil companies have been doing business in Iraq for years - including under the U.N. oil-for-food program of the past decade.

Radija Mohsen-Finan, an Arab expert at the French Institute for International Relations, says President Chirac's current position on Baghdad is in line with a Middle East policy crafted half a century ago by former French President Charles de Gaulle.

Mrs. Mohsen-Finan says she believes the French government is concerned the United States is trying to diminish France's influence in the Middle East. That could happen, she believes, if the Bush administration wages and wins a war against Baghdad.

But other experts, like Francois Heisbourg, a leading strategic analyst, believe France's Muslim population, including more radical fringes, figures very little into the government's position on the Iraqi crisis.

"It doesn't make much difference. No more so than during the Gulf war," he said. "There is some fear that some of the wilder kids in the suburbs will be a bit wilder if this happens. But Iraq is not a popular rallying point for the Islamists."

Rather, Mr. Heisbourg says, French and Americans simply see the Iraqi crisis, and ways to defuse it, in radically different ways. Mr. Heisbourg is among those who doubt France will ultimately join any war against Baghdad. If so, that decision would likely please Muslims who are living in France.

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