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Air force sergeant accused of planning mosque attack as Muslim leader denounces 'Islamophobic' France

23-year-old arrested over plot as violent incidents rise

A Muslim religious leader has denounced France’s “climate of Islamophobia” after an air force sergeant with alleged links to the extreme right was placed under investigation for attempting to carry out a terrorist attack against a mosque near Lyon.

The 23-year-old, who was arrested at a military base last week, has been placed under investigation on charges including possessing a weapon with terrorist intent.

Islamophobic attacks have risen by between 35 and 50 per cent in France this year according to data from Muslim associations. The country is home to five million Muslims.

The French interior ministry said the sergeant is believed to be “close to the radical far right” and had allegedly planned to open fire on the mosque at Vénissieux in the Bordeaux region on Thursday last week, when Muslims celebrated the end of Ramadan. A rally was held outside the Vénissieux mosque yesterday to encourage solidarity with the local Muslim community.

According to investigators, the soldier confessed to planning to attack the Vénissieux mosque and also admitted responsibility for firebombing a mosque in Libourne, southwestern France, in August last year. Some of the soldier’s relatives reportedly tipped off police about his most recent plans after finding him with extremist literature.

Kamel Kabtane, the rector of Lyon’s main mosque, expressed shock that the arrested man was a soldier “who is tasked with defending France”. Mr Kabtane said the arrest revealed “that a climate of Islamophobia reigns in France today, we cannot delude ourselves.” He added: “It’s been going on for some years, but now people are turning their words into acts.”

Investigators said that the serviceman had sought three times to contact Maxime Brunerie, a neo-Nazi who attempted to assassinate President Jacques Chirac in 2002 during the annual Bastille Day parade. The soldier was also a supporter of the radical historian Dominique Venner, who committed suicide in Notre-Dame cathedral in May. His suicide was  ostensibly in protest against the legalisation of gay marriage in France, but in a blog post, he also warned that France and Europe were going to be brought under “Islamist control” and sharia law.

The rector praised the interior ministry for the arrest as a sign that France “treats all these matters equally.” French authorities have been accused in the past of failing to investigate anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attacks with the same zeal, an accusation which the  Interior Minister, Manuel Valls, has described as false and “insulting.”

Mr Valls has been criticised by Muslim community leaders for playing down Islamophobia and for suggesting that some Islamic institutions in France were in the hands of radical Salafist factions which are stirring up sectarian friction.

Many anti-Muslim attacks have been linked to the debate on legislation which banned the wearing of the full-face niqab from April 2011, and which caused a spate of violent incidents. Riots erupted last month over a police identity check of a veiled woman in the Paris suburb of Trappes. In May, a 17-year-old identified only as Rabia told reporters she was attacked by “skinheads” who knocked her to the ground while calling her a “dirty Muslim”. In June, a pregnant Muslim woman lost her baby after an attack in which her veil was ripped from her by two men who taunted her with anti-Islamic slogans.

Tensions were further fuelled in March, when a French soldier was stabbed in a Paris suburb. Judges placed 22-year-old Alexandre Dhaussy, believed to be a recent convert to Islam, under formal investigation for “attempted murder linked to a terrorist enterprise”.

Last Saturday, the wall of a Muslim prayer room in Lesparre-Medoc, in the south-west, was daubed with swastikas.

Mr Valls has had several meetings in recent weeks with Muslim representatives, most recently in Ozoir-la-Ferrière, east of Paris, where he had a Ramadan fast-breaking dinner. The mosque in that city was sprayed with extremist slogans earlier this year.

5m The number of Muslims in France, out of a total population of 65 million

40 Mosques were attacked last year, twice the number in 2011

469 Islamophobic attacks were reported in France in 2012

54% The proportion of respondents to a Le Monde poll in February who said they believed France awarded too many rights to followers of Islam