PARIS, Nov 2: A majority of people in France, according to a new poll, believe that Islam is too influential in French society, and almost half view Muslims as a threat to their national identity.
The survey reveals a significant degradation of the image of Islam in France. The findings also show that French voters are growing increasingly uneasy about mass immigration from Muslim countries, which has been encouraged by a generation of political and cultural elites in France dedicated to creating a multicultural society.
The survey conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion (or Ifop, as it is usually called) and published by the center-right Le Figaro newspaper on October 24, shows that 60% of French people believe that Islam has become "too visible and influential" in France -- up from 55% in an earlier survey two years ago.
The poll also reveals that 43% of French people consider the presence of Muslim immigrants to be a threat to French national identity, compared to just 17% who say it enriches society.
In addition, 68% of people in France blame the problems associated with Muslim integration on immigrants who refuse to integrate (up from 61% two years ago), and 52% blame it on cultural differences (up from 40% two years ago).
The poll also shows a growing resistance to the symbols of Islam. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of French people say they are opposed to Muslim women wearing the veil or Islamic headscarves in public, compared to 59% two years ago.
Furthermore, the survey shows that only 18% of French people say they support the building of new mosques in France (compared to 33% in 1989, and 20% in 2010).
"Our poll shows a further hardening in French people's opinions," Jerome Fourquet, head of Ifop's opinion department, told Le Figaro. "In recent years, there has not been a week when Islam has not been in the heart of the news for social reasons: the veil, halal food, dramatic news like terrorist attacks or geopolitical reasons," he said.
France, which is home to an estimated six million Muslims, has the largest Muslim population in the European Union. There are now, in fact, more practicing Muslims in France than there are practicing Roman Catholics.
Although 64% of the French population (or 41.6 million of France's 65 million inhabitants) identify themselves as Roman Catholic, only 4.5% (or 1.9 million) of these actually are practicing Catholics, according to a separate survey on Catholicism in France published by Ifop in July 2009.
By way of comparison, 75% (or 4.5 million), of the estimated six million mostly ethnic North African and sub-Saharan Muslims in France, identify themselves as "believers;" and 41% (or 2.5 million) say they are "practicing" Muslims, according to an in-depth research report on Islam in France published by Ifop in July 2011.
Taken together, the research data provides empirical evidence that Islam is well on its way to overtaking Roman Catholicism as the dominant religion in France.
This trend is also reflected in the fact that mosques are being built more often in France than are Roman Catholic churches; nearly 150 new mosques are currently under construction in France.
The total number of mosques in France has already doubled to more than 2,000 during just the past ten years, according to a research report, "Constructing Mosques: The Governance of Islam in France and the Netherlands." The rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, has called for the number of mosques in the country to be doubled again -- to 4,000 -- to meet growing demand.
By contrast, the Roman Catholic Church has built only 20 new churches in France during the past decade, and has formally closed more than 60 churches, many of which are destined to become mosques, according to research conducted by La Croix, a Roman Catholic daily newspaper based in Paris.
In recent weeks, tensions have flared over the proposed conversion of an empty church into a mosque in the central French town of Vierzon. The controversy involves Saint-Eloi's, a small church located in a working class neighborhood that has been taken over by immigrants from Morocco and Turkey.
With six churches to maintain and fewer faithful every year, Roman Catholic authorities in Vierzon say they can no longer afford to keep Saint-Eloi's. They now want to sell the building for €170,000 ($220,000) to a Moroccan Muslim organization that wants to convert the church into a mosque.
In an interview with the French weekly newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur, Alain Krauth, the parish priest of the largest Catholic church in Vierzon, said: "The Christian community is not as important as it used to be in the past. If moderate Muslims buy Saint-Eloi's, we can only be happy that the Muslims of Vierzon are able to celebrate their religion." His comments were greeted with outrage by local citizens who are now trying to prevent the church from becoming a mosque.
Similar scenes are being played out across France.
In the nearby city of Poitiers, around 70 members of a conservative youth group known as Generation Identity recently occupied a mosque that is being built in the heavily Muslim Buxerolles district of the city. The dawn raid on October 21 was intended as a protest against Islam's growing influence in France.
The protesters climbed onto the roof of the mosque (photos here) and unfurled a banner with the symbolic phrase "732 Generation Identity," a reference to the year 732, when Charles Martel halted the advance of the invading Muslim army to the north of Poitiers (also known as the Battle of Tours.)
Meanwhile, the Socialist government in France recently inaugurated a new mega-mosque in Paris as a first step towards "progressively building a French Islam."
The new mosque, located in the northern Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise, is not only vast in its dimensions (photos here), but is also highly visible and symbolic: its towering minaret, which has purposely been designed to change the suburb's skyline by being taller than any church steeple in the neighborhood, is supposed to become the "new symbol of Islam in France."
Speaking on behalf of French President François Hollande at the inauguration ceremony of the mosque in Cergy, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls articulated the Socialist government's policy vis-à-vis the construction of new mosques in France. He declared: "A mosque, when it is erected in the city, says a simple thing: Islam has its place in France."