France's tortured relations with the Muslim world

One might hope that the British would take such pains to rescue a pair of kidnapped journalists
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The Independent Online

One thing should be fairly obvious. Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were not kidnapped because they were French. They were kidnapped because they were Westerners.

One thing should be fairly obvious. Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were not kidnapped because they were French. They were kidnapped because they were Westerners.

The two French journalists being held hostage in Iraq were not captured because the "Islamic Army in Iraq" - whoever they may be - has a pressing interest in internal French politics or cares much about the law banning headscarves in French state schools. The pair, old friends and co-authors of three acclaimed books on Iraq, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, on the road from Baghdad to Najaf. (Journalistically speaking, they were, courageously, in the right place at the right time.)

The demand by the "Islamic Army" that the French law should be abandoned does not therefore form part of some concerted Islamist campaign against the new rules (which take effect on Thursday). It is a piece of cynical opportunism. France has no military, nor any other, presence in Iraq. Having inadvertently captured two French journalists, the militants had to concoct some sort of demand. The headscarves law was the obvious target.

None of this makes one hold out great hope for the survival of M. Chesnot and M. Malbrunot. How is the French Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, who arrived in Cairo yesterday, supposed to "negotiate" with a group asking for something impossible that they don't care much about?

Officially, M. Barnier is not in the Middle East to negotiate at all. He is there to make appearances in the Arab media, where he will explain, in his patient, plausible way, that the law on religious symbols is not meant to be an attack on Islam, but a guarantee of the benevolent neutrality of the French state towards all religions.

He is also there to "activate" France's network of contacts, official and unofficial, in the region, to try to get some sort of message through to the kidnappers. The burden of his message is probably threefold: France did not support the invasion of Iraq; the headscarves law is not aimed at Islam; French Islamic leaders, even some of the most radical, have angrily condemned any attempt to link Iraqi quarrels with internal French politics.

Good luck, M. Barnier. Sincerely so. One would like to hope that all Western governments - including that of Britain - would take such pains to try to rescue a pair of kidnapped journalists.

The trouble is that France, in this moment of crisis, finds itself confronted with the limitations, and contradictions, of its efforts to develop an alternative (ie non-American) policy towards the Islamic world.

Colonial history and the presence of over three million Muslims in France mean that Paris feels that it has a right, and a duty, to maintain a special relationship with Arab countries. At the same time, the troubled, and often clumsy, relations between the French government and French people and its own Muslim minority is, increasingly, a complicating factor in France's relations with Islam.

It is absurd to argue, as the Iraqi Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, did in an article in Le Monde yesterday, that France is somehow paying the price for a cowardly refusal to take on extremist Islam; that the capture of the two French journalists somehow shows that Paris was wrong to oppose the US-led invasion. France was in the forefront of the fight against Islamist violence when the US and Britain were looking elsewhere. Paris rejected the Iraqi war as a distraction from the real war on fundamentalist terrorism which might put the West on a collision course with Islam. Eighteen months later, those arguments look even saner than they did at the time.

However, the odious ransom demand by the "Islamic Army in Iraq" - cynical and opportunistic though it is - has struck a raw, Gallic nerve (hence, in part, the mood of national crisis). The last thing that France needs is another spillover from Middle-Eastern conflicts on to the streets of its own, troubled, poor inner suburbs (where the Israel-Palestine conflict has already sparked a proxy offensive by French-Arab youths against French Jews).

The first response of Muslim leaders in France has been impeccable. Even radical Islamic leaders, who were previously urging Muslim girls to defy the headscarves law, have suggested that there should now be no acts of confrontation which might inflame feelings in the majority white community. Would that the French government had been so sensitive while considering its law on religious symbols in schools (which is mostly aimed at Muslim headscarves, whatever M. Barnier may say).

At the margins, there was perhaps a case for clearing up a confused legal situation on the secular status of state schools. But the main motivation of the new law was electoral: it was a sop to the white community; a statement that immigrants must play by the rules of the majority. The timing of the new law - just as Islam felt under attack and France was trying to build a position as honest broker in the Islamic world - was bone-headed.

Nonetheless, good luck to M. Barnier.