A right-wing politician vying to head France’s opposition conservative party has raised a storm by suggesting Muslim youths tear pain au chocolat pastries from children’s hands during Islam’s fasting month.
The controversy has inflamed old strains over secular and mainly-Catholic France’s struggle to assimilate Muslim culture.
Jean-Francois Cope, who calls himself a non-practicing Jew, made the allegation of bullying by young Muslims in front of an audience of supporters last week.
“There are areas where children cannot even eat their ‘pains au chocolat’ because it’s Ramadan,” Cope said, referring to an incident allegedly reported to him a few years ago by the mother of a child whose pastry was snatched at his school gate.
The remark, with its evocation of one of France’s best-loved breakfast treats, has provoked accusations that Cope, who is challenging a moderate rival to lead the main opposition conservative UMP party, is seeking to boost his appeal with the hard-right and so raise his chances of winning next month’s leadership contest.
“(Cope) has never hesitated in going too far when it’s in his interest,” said Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac, a leading figure in Hollande’s Socialist government.
The comment has also drawn fire from UMP moderates, with ex-minister Francois Baroin calling it “toxic”. Even National Front leader Marine Le Pen weighed in, sniffing that Cope was trying to mimic his mentor, ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“He only notices the reality of racism when he is in a political campaign,” Le Pen told France 5 TV.
Yet Cope insists he is taking the lid off a real problem of anti-white racism. In a recent book, he relates an incident in the northern town of Meaux where he is mayor in which a woman was robbed by Arab youths who yelled: “Get lost Gaul woman”.
Attitudes to immigration from largely North African former colonies since independence are complex and France, a secular nation of 65 million people, has struggled in the past to assimilate its 5 million-strong Muslim community.
France is also home to a well-established Jewish population of 600,000 that is Europe’s largest.