PARIS - A Muslim-run gym opened last month in Paris has caused a stir in French society, with the local mayor already calling for its closure in what some view as a typical row between Muslim integration and secularism in the run-up to Franc'e municipal elections.
"'I don't want any veiled women in my town,' he told us," gym manager Nadia El Gendouli, who sports a piercing in her nose and plunging neckline, told Reuters on Friday, October 4, speaking about Le Raincy's conservative mayor Eric Raoult.
"'You're a fundamentalist!' he told me."
Opening its doors last month, the pink and orange all-women gym has become the center of controversy in the up-market Paris suburb of Le Raincy.
The Orty Gym - Orty means "my sisters" in Arabic - is a 200 square-meter space with pink work-out equipment, freshly-painted fuchsia and orange walls and a large room where classes such as Hip Hop, Zumba, Stretching and Step are offered.
Some of the 70 women exercising in the room cover their hair with a headscarf but many do not as all races and religions are welcome.
According to its manager, opposition to the Muslim owned gym started six-months ago because of the opposition of conservative mayor Eric Raoult.
Raoult, who says safety is his only concern, seeks re-election in nationwide municipal polls in which the anti-immigrant National Front is expected to gain ground.
"When he saw my (bearded) husband he had a shock. 'You've rented a place where?' he asked us," Lynda Ellabou, who owns the gym with her husband, recalled.
"'You're going to put a veiled woman at the reception desk too?'"
"In the end he made us understand it wasn't going to be possible to open," she said, adding Raoult later objected to the gym's lack of parking and steps leading to the emergency exit.
Raoult denied the allegation that he did not want women wearing Muslim veils in Le Raincy.
"These are fundamentalists, they lie!" he shouted.
"They consider because they're Muslims they're victims and they consider they have more rights," he said.
However, local security officials stressed that the gym met all safety standards.
Though security officials confirmed that the gym could stay open, but they did not guarantee it would now be out of the political spotlight.
"Whether it's Jews, Catholics, Arabs, it's all the same. If it's not according to the law they'll be closed," Raoult told Reuters at his office.
"Muslims need to know they have to respect the law."
The mayor's opposition was already spreading among the district's population
The problem reflects France's uneasy relations with its five million-strong Muslim minority, Europe's largest, and tensions over an official policy of secularism Muslims say is used against them.
One resident who came to the gym to offer support to the couple said such comments played well in Le Raincy, where ageing residents worry about changing demographics in an area that is close to the tough run-down suburbs of northern Paris.
"There are people here in town who vote for him precisely because he says things like that," said the resident, Celine.
One gym employee, Lynda, who also wears a headscarf, said she felt targeted in the society.
"They hide behind 'human rights' here in France, but they're racist. We're considered foreigners," she said.
France is home to a Muslim community of nearly six million, the largest in Europe.
French Muslims have long complained of rising discrimination and hostile sentiments in the European country.
A recent IFOP poll found that almost half of French see Muslims as a threat to their national identity.
French Muslims have also complained of restrictions on building mosques to perform their daily prayers.
The French government has outlawed Muslim street prayers, a sight far-right leader Marine 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.