Across The Atlantic, Another Mosque Splits A City

Two women, one wearing a  niqab, walk in Marseille, France. Claude Paris/AP

hide captionIt's estimated at least a quarter of Marseille's million inhabitants are Muslim.

Claude Paris/AP

New York is not the only city divided over the building of a mosque. In the French Mediterranean port of Marseille, construction of a large mosque is being hotly debated. Even though the cornerstone has already been laid, the project is far from being accepted by everyone.

The controversy reflects the deeper tensions simmering beneath the city's surface.

France's oldest and second largest city, founded by Phoenician sailors in 600 B.C., Marseille has absorbed waves of immigrants throughout its history and is now a melting pot of cultures.

Stephan Ravier's mother came here from Italy in the 1930s. Today, the 41-year-old works for France Telecom. He's also a member of the right-wing political party, The National Front. Ravier says his grandparents gave their children French names so they could better assimilate. But, he says, Marseille's newest immigrants — Muslims from North Africa – don't make the same effort to fit in.

"It's no longer about mixing populations so they can live together," he says. "We French are being replaced by another people and their culture, religion and way of life. The wave of immigration has been so huge in the last 20 years that we are being submerged."

As he rides his motorcycle through Marseille's traffic-choked streets, Ravier points out Halal butchers, Islamic schools and many women wearing headscarves and even the all-encompassing Muslim veil known as the burka. Ravier calls the newly planned mosque the straw that will break the camel's back. The National Front is trying to block its construction in court.

A Mosque Fit For A Growing Population

Most of Marseille's 70 mosques are small and makeshift, operating out of garages and storefronts. One near the city center is so packed during Friday prayers that the faithful flow out into the street to pray on flattened cardboard boxes. The new mosque, with room for 7,000 worshipers, is meant to change all that. Despite opposition from the far right, the mayor and a majority of the city's non-Muslims support the mosque, local journalist Etienne Baudu says.

"It's not normal to pray in [the] street," she says. "In Marseille, Muslims need a big mosque — big one, like in Paris, like in Lyon. The problem with these street mosques, the Muslims, they feel reject[ed]."

Most of Marseille's Muslims are from Algeria, a part of France until 1962. The scars from colonization, the War of Independence, and the forced repatriation of a million Algerian-born French, known as Pieds Noirs, have not completely healed.

Rene Gabila, 67, says he understands why the Algerians wanted their independence, but he says he wants to know why they are now invading France. He's among a group of elderly men playing a game of boules at the site of the future "Grande Mosque."

The faces of the Frenchmen, who are Catholic and Jewish, are deeply tanned and wrinkled, attesting to a lifetime spent under the Mediterranean sun. They say they are against the mosque, but their objections seem to be about more than religion.

"They come here and then they live in their own world," he says. "They absolutely do not want to integrate. Look at these crazy burkas and things like that. How can we be expected to love them?"

Unwelcomed, Muslims Turn Away

Many people say the mix of politics, immigration and history makes Marseille an explosive place. Only last week, the premier of a film on the Algerian War brought hundreds of angry protesters into the streets declaring that it was anti-French.

Today at least a quarter of Marseille's million inhabitants are thought to be Muslim.

"They say we don't want to integrate, but it's not true," says Omar Djellil, 39, who was born in France of Algerian parents. "We speak French, we try to be French, but they don't accept us. We're stuck in ghettos with poor schools. We can't create a Muslim elite. It's a little like how black Americans must have lived in 1930s Mississippi."

Djellil sits in a cafe where the Arab language news channel Al Jazeera plays in the background. He says that like him, many young Muslims are now rejecting a French identity and turning toward the values and religion of their countries of origin.

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