French premier warns Islamic extremists winning ‘cultural war’

Amid headscarf rows, Manuel Valls says Salafists controlling message heard in wider French society, vows to ‘massively’ boost security spending

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls looks on at the Dejazet theater on April 4, 2016 in Paris during a debate on "Islamism and populist exploitation". (AFP / LIONEL BONAVENTURE)
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls looks on at the Dejazet theater on April 4, 2016 in Paris during a debate on "Islamism and populist exploitation". (AFP / LIONEL BONAVENTURE)

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said extreme forms of Islam were winning the propaganda war for hearts and minds, warning Monday the veil was being used as a political symbol for the “enslavement of women.”

Speaking at a roundtable on Islamism in Paris, the premier warned that Salafists were “winning the ideological and cultural battle” in France, home of Europe’s biggest Muslim population.

And he pledged to “massively” increase France’s security and defense budgets in the coming years, as the country grapples with a growing jihadist threat after two deadly attacks last year.

“The Salafists must represent one percent of the Muslims in our country today, but their message — their messages on social networks — is the only one we end up hearing,” he said.

France has cracked down on extremism since a deadly jihadist attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015 and after Islamic State gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 people on the streets of Paris in November.

Deadly IS bombings in Brussels last month have intensified fears that parts of Europe are turning into a hotbed for home-grown extremism.

There have been fears of an Islamophobic backlash, however, and France’s women’s rights minister sparked a storm last month when she compared women who wear headscarves to “Negroes who supported slavery.”

Illustrative photo of hijabs at sale in Jerusalem's Old City. (photo credit: Daniel Dreifuss/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of hijabs for sale (Daniel Dreifuss/Flash90)

Her comments were a response to the growth of fashion tailored for the Muslim market, as a wave of big fashion chains including Dolce & Gabbana have launched lines of hijab headscarves and “burqini” all-body swimming costumes.

France bans the Muslim face veil in public places, and Valls said the headscarf was being used by some as a challenge to France’s secular society.

“The veil does not represent a fashion fad, no, it’s not a color one wears, no: it is enslavement of women,” he said, warning of the “ideological message that can spread behind religious symbols.”

“We have to make a distinction between wearing the veil as a scarf for older women, and it as a political gesture confronting French society.”

The comments also came as Air France said female employees would be allowed to opt out of working on flights to Iran so that they can avoid having to wear a headscarf

The airline will appoint a “special unit” to replace those who do not want to fly to Tehran, a company official said Monday.

“Any woman assigned to the Paris-Tehran flight who for reasons of personal choice would refuse to wear the headscarf upon leaving the plane will be reassigned to another destination, and thus will not be obliged to do this flight,” human resources official Gilles Gateau told Europe 1 radio.

Air France is to resume on April 17 its Paris-to-Tehran service, which had been suspended since 2008 because of international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

Unions say company executives sent staff an internal memo regarding flights to Tehran saying that female cabin crew would be required to wear trousers on board with a loose fitting jacket and must cover their hair with a scarf when they leave the plane.

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