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French Muslims Elect Islamic Council - 2003-04-14

Muslim leaders in France have elected the country's first representative Islamic council, gathering together various, historically fractious religious currents.

Turnout was high during the two rounds of voting for France's first representative Muslim council. Officials said more than 85 percent of religious leaders participated in the elections, which ended late Sunday.

The results, which were announced by the French Interior Ministry, represent a setback for the mainstream Paris Mosque.

The Mosque has long been a favorite of the French government, which selected its rector, Dalil Boubakeur, to lead the council. But in many parts of France where its candidates ran for seats, the Mosque placed second or third in the voting, often behind its main rival the more fundamentalist Union of Islamic Organizations of France.

Nonetheless, Mr. Boubakeur said, all the religious representatives on the council were determined to work together.

What was important, Mr. Boubakeur told French radio, was that the nation's Muslims finally had a formal voice, regardless of which Islamic currents were represented.

That is also a top priority of French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who considers the council a victory for mainstream Islam over a more extremist "Islam of the caves."

The elections cap almost two decades of efforts to form a representative council for some five million Muslims living in France. Roman Catholics, Protestants and Jews here all have such religious groupings. But Islamic leaders have clashed over forming their own organization.

The Islamic council's new general assembly will meet for the first time next month, and its members will have plenty to tackle. Top priorities among French Muslim leaders include obtaining government permission to construct new mosques, as well as more Muslim cemeteries, and slaughterhouses.

It was not immediately clear how many women, if any, were elected to the council. No women were among those separately appointed to the body a few months ago. Some critics also say the new council does not represent many Muslim youths.

During the next vote, scheduled two years from now, all the council members are to be elected.