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Blow to France healing touch

Paris, June 29 (Reuters): France’s efforts to better integrate its Muslims were in turmoil at the weekend after a moderate Islamic leader tendered then withdrew his resignation as head of a council increasingly influenced by fundamentalists.

Dalil Boubakeur, head of the Grand Mosque of Paris, said on Friday he was quitting as government-designated head of the council representing the country’s five million Muslims, France’s second largest religious group. Within hours he retracted the statement, but added a question mark, saying he would stay on only if he could effectively lead the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM).

The government set up the council to promote dialogue with a minority often sidelined in this traditionally Catholic country of 60 million. Boubakeur, an Algerian with close ties to President Jacques Chirac, was appointed to head the panel.

Most of France’s Muslims are immigrants or children of immigrants from its former Arab colonies in North Africa. But integration has been patchy and xenophobic National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen won 17 per cent of the vote in the first round of 2002 presidential elections.

Increasingly under fire, interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy vigorously defended the council he created. “We have to develop a French Islam,” he told the newspaper Le Figaro yesterday. “How can you develop a French Islam if you don’t want to talk to anybody' The rise in fundamentalism is the product of a discussion we haven’t had.”

Sarkozy persuaded the country’s fractious Muslims last year to form a council like the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish umbrella groups that deal with the secular French state.

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