France's Muslims rise above racial divide

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In the midst of an anguished debate in France over racial and religious integration, the footballer Zinédine Zidane has topped a national popularity poll and a Muslim will be appointed this week to an elite government post.

President Jacques Chirac will announce on Wednesday that Aissa Dermouche, 56, head of a leading business college in Nantes, will become the first Muslim for 40 years to be appointed as a Prefect - top national government official - in one of the 100 French départements (counties).

On Saturday, Zidane, 31, star of the French team and Real Madrid, who like M. Dermouche is from the Kabyle or Berber minority in Algeria, was elected the most admired person in France. He topped a list of mostly entertainment, media and sports celebrities in the annual IFOP-Journal du Dimanche poll, in which President Chirac came 42nd.

Both decisions arrive as France is engaged in a divisive debate over the integration of its estimated 2.5 million Muslim citizens, and other immigrant communities. President Chirac called last month for a new law to ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves, and other overt religious symbols, in state schools and offices.

He has slapped down a suggestion from the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, that the ban should be matched by "positive discrimination" to help Muslims and other French citizens from immigrant backgrounds to get into state jobs and leading educational institutions.

He has, however, accepted a recommendation from M. Sarkozy that M. Dermouche should join the elite ranks of France's "préfets" - uniformed civil servants who control law enforcement and national government administration in each département.

M. Chirac insisted the appointment was his idea, not M. Sarkozy's. Relations between M. Chirac and M. Sarkozy, once close allies, have become explosive since the popular interior minister let it be known in November that he planned to run for the presidency in 2007.

President Chirac said he had first proposed such an appointment months ago but he was "profoundly shocked" by M. Sarkozy's suggestion last month that there should be a "Muslim prefect". The new appointment was being made on merit, not because of "the candidate's name", said M. Chirac, who remains opposed to "positive discrimination".

Leaving aside personal quarrels and fine, political distinctions, Wednesday's announcement comes at a useful time for M. Chirac. His decision to push ahead with a ban on head-scarves in state schools has been criticised by some - not all - Muslim leaders in France and has been attacked in the Arab world, where M. Chirac was previously popular.

By comparison, the anointment of Zidane as "France's favourite Frenchman" is an accidental and lucky stroke for race relations in France. The perennial winner of the award, Abbé Pierre, 95, a clergyman who works for the homeless, asked to be left out of the poll this year.

The choice of Zidane, who was especially popular with young people, in a poll which included 15 year olds and above, indicates that France is not as racially polarised as some commentators suggest.

However, there were only two other non-white French people in the top 50 - the tennis player-turned-singer, Yannick Noah, in seventh place, and the comedian and actor, Jammel Debbouze, who came 27th.