CAIRO - A small city in north France is setting an example on how Muslims and non-Muslims can live side by side in harmony, setting an exception in a country in which the Muslim population finds itself at the center of a debate over racism, religious tolerance and national identity.
Roubaix is a cradle, a symbol of immigration, Muhammed Henniche, secretary general of the Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis, a Paris suburb, told New York Times on Tuesday, August 6.
Roubaix is representative of living in harmony in terms of immigration, he said.
In a country where Islamic head coverings are regulated by law and many Muslims say they have been made to feel like outsiders, Roubaix is one of just a handful of cities that have broken with a rigid interpretation of the country's state secularism
Wearing head scarves and long skirts, Muslim women walk freely in the city which succeeded in embracing its Muslim population.
The city is much different from Trappes, a heavily Muslim suburb of Paris, where an altercation between the police and a woman wearing a niqab turned violent two weeks ago.
In another suburb of Paris, the mayor refused a request by Muslims for a prayer room to use during Ramadan.
I am comfortable in these clothes here in Roubaix, said Farid Gacem, the bearded president of the Abu Bakr mosque, who was wearing a nearly ankle-length loose brown tunic on a recent afternoon.
The welcoming atmosphere in Roubaix was a result of its long history of immigration, which has included not just Muslims but also Buddhists from Southeast Asia and other groups.
The mayor's office has taken steps to offer assistance to Muslims here, including establishing 6 mosques in the city, a large number for a city of fewer than 100,000 people.
The local government has also allowed the appointment of a Muslim cleric at the city hospital, and three areas of the city's cemetery are designated for Muslims, a rarity in France.
The mayor's office has established a consortium that includes a representative from each of the city's religious groups.
Cradle of Integration
The success of Roubaix's approach to multiculturalism brings the concept of harmonious French cities closer.
When you look at the demographics, in two or three generations, all of France will be like Roubaix, said Bertrand Moreau, the chief spokesman for the mayor's office.
There will be a melting pot everywhere, and Roubaix is a laboratory for how things could work, he said.
In conversations in the streets and mosques of Roubaix during Ramadan, Muslims made clear that while they face some of the same problems as other French Muslims, they feel that their little city is different.
Our leitmotif is to live together, and in this living together there's an image that we wish to give of the Muslim community: that we are French citizens before anything, before the religious aspect, said Sliman Taleb-Ahmed, president of the association of Muslim institutions in Roubaix.
French Muslims, estimated at nearly six million, have long complained of rising discrimination and hostile sentiments in the European country.
In Roubaix, the mayor's office estimates that the Muslim population is as much as 20,000, or about 20 percent of the population.
A recent IFOP poll found that almost half of French see Muslims as a threat to their national identity.
French Muslims have complained of restrictions on building mosques to perform their daily prayers.
The French government also outlawed Muslim street prayers, a sight Le Pen likened to the Nazi occupation.
Amnesty International has criticized France and a number of European countries as Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland for discriminating against their Muslim minorities.