February 19, 2014
A century after their sacrifices to France, long forgotten French Muslim soldiers have been remembered by President Francois Hollande who said France “owed a debt” to Muslim soldiers who died in World War I, pledging to fight racism and discrimination targeting the religious minority.
“France will never forget the price of the blood shed” by Muslim soldiers, Hollande said at a ceremony in Paris’s Grand Mosque on Tuesday, February 18, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported.
Holland’s visit to the mosque, the first since being elected president in 2012, comes ahead of events planned later this year to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the war.
About 600,000 troops from France’s colonies took part in the 1914-18 war and about 70,000 Muslims lost their lives at the battle of Verdun in 1916, according to figures released by the Defence Ministry in 2010.
Hollande unveiled a plaque paying tribute to the 100,000 French Muslims who died fighting in the two world wars.
His presidential predecessors Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy also presented memorials and plaques remembering Muslims who fought for France.
Islam is “perfectly compatible with the values of France,” Hollande said.
“This homage is a call for respect,” Hollande said, urging a “fierce fight against discrimination, inequality and racism” as well as against “anti-Muslim words and acts.”
France is home to a Muslim minority of six million, Europe’s largest.
According to a poll published in April last year, three out of four French people have an negative image of Islam.
French Muslims have been complaining of growing restrictions on their religious freedoms.
In 2004, France banned Muslims from wearing hijab, an obligatory code of dress, in public places. Several European countries followed the French example.
France has also outlawed the wearing of face-veil in public.
The Grand Mosque of Paris, the largest mosque in France, was built between 1922 -1926.
French Muslim leaders have welcomed Hollande’s move to remember Muslim fighters.
“Even if this is not new, it’s good that François Hollande again reminds those who reject Muslims that thousands of natives died for France,” said Abdallah Zekri of the CFCM coalition of Islamic groupings, RFI reported on Tuesday.
“He should seize the chance to discuss the present worrying atmosphere with us,” he added.
On the other hand, Louis Aliot, the vice-president of the far-right Front National, slammed the visit as a “crude attempt at manipulation”.
“These comments are totally irresponsible because France has never forgotten the soldiers who died for France,” he stormed, claiming that the ceremony is exploiting them for the sake of “sectarian lobbyists”.
“If increasingly radical political Islam poses a problem […] of republican compatibility in our country, it’s not up to France to adapt and to provide answers it’s up to that religion,” Aliot said.
French media has also interpreted the visit as being aimed at gaining the favor of Muslims, who currently constitute five percent of the country’s voters, ahead of the March local elections.