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French Islamic Leaders Electing Council - 2003-04-06

Islamic leaders are electing France's first official council representing the country's estimated five million Muslims. The body has been a subject of years of debate, and the notion remains deeply controversial.

The two-part election which ends next Sunday is the last step in forming a body representing France's second-largest religion. The new council is expected to lobby the government on matters such as building new mosques and establishing a religious curriculum in private schools, as well as offering a single voice for France's normally fractious Muslim community.

Jews, Roman Catholics and Protestants in France all have representative bodies.

The electors from roughly 1,000 recognized Muslim halls of worship will vote for most of the council's future parliamentary assembly and its administrative council. Other members have been pre-selected, including the council president, Dalil Boubakeur, who heads the Paris Mosque.

For the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the vote represents a political coup after years of failed efforts to forge a representative body.

The vote is particularly timely, as the government confronts a new wave of attacks on Jewish and some Muslim institutions, coinciding with the war in Iraq. A poll published Saturday by Le Figaro newspaper found that 62 percent of French Muslims side with Iraq in the conflict, and three-quarters hope the United States will lose the war.

During a television interview last week, Mr. Raffarin called the election an important but difficult step. "So long as Islam was confined to so-called cellars and hidden in neighborhoods, Mr. Raffarin said, it did not exist side by side with the country's cherished notion of secularity," he said.

But among French Muslims the council remains deeply controversial. Although the Figaro poll suggests most Muslims support forming such a body, only 42 percent of the respondents even knew what it was. And there are plenty of critics, such as Paris insurance agent Mimi Otsmane.

A practicing Muslim, Mrs. Otsmane said she is not at all interested in the council elections. She said she does not need a religious body to represent her. She said many other French Muslims agree.

Other critics, such as the Union of Young Muslims of France, denounce the French government's involvement in creating such a council, including hand-picking its leader.

Female representation may be another source of controversy. The single woman appointed to the body stepped down in February. It is unclear how many women will be voted in by religious representatives this week.