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French Muslims Agree on Plan for Representative Council - 2002-12-20

After months of negotiation, France's largest Muslim organizations agreed Friday on a plan for the country's first representative Muslim Council. The new council will speak on behalf of some five million Muslims living in France, Europe's largest Islamic population.

Muslim leaders announced Friday that the future representative council will be headed by Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the powerful mainstream Mosque of Paris and the French government's top choice.

The council's two vice presidents will be members of France's other two popular Muslim movements - the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, and the National Federation of French Muslims. Other top appointments will be shared by several other Muslim groups, and the rest of the posts will be elected.

The announcement ends three years of squabbling among French Muslim leaders over the composition of the representative body. French Catholics, Jews and Protestants all have representative councils, able to lobby on behalf of their communities before the French government. But French Muslims have not had a council, even though Islam is the second largest religion in France.

Paris Mosque lawyer Chems-Dine Hafiz said the Muslim council will be a first, not only for France, but for Europe. In an interview with VOA, Mr. Hafiz also said it was fitting that the Paris Mosque should capture the presidency, since it reflected the beliefs of most French Muslims.

But others do not agree with this assessment. And even the last hours of consultation among Muslim leaders were marked by discord.

The new council represents a victory for France's new interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made the appointment of a Muslim representative body a top priority. Mr. Sarkozy has captured news headlines for his many initiatives in recent months, which also include cracking down on crime, and holding talks with fractious leaders in Corsica. He has earned a new nickname for all that effort - speedy Sarkozy.

Many pundits predict Mr. Sarkozy may well be a top presidential contender in 2007, if French President Jacques Chirac decides not to seek re-election.