PARIS – They are France's millions-strong minority with a voice that usually falls silent at election time. But this year, there is a special new effort to mobilize French Muslims to speak up at the ballot box in Sunday's presidential race — amid a surge of Islam-bashing among the French right.
Imams and Islamic associations are calling on Muslims to do their duty as citizens and go to the polls. And while they're not officially endorsing anyone, the call itself is a bold move in a country where statistics on religious affiliation are formally banned and where secularism is enshrined in the constitution.
Socialist Francois Hollande — the poll favorite — is more likely to benefit from the get-out-the-vote push, because conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has spoken out against Muslim practices in his campaign and experts say that Muslims in poor neighborhoods and Muslim youth tend to vote for the left. But the Muslim vote is diverse, and there's no guarantee that the push will bring out voters, since Muslims have tended in the past to avoid politics.
French Muslims have been pounded with blame throughout the campaign for what they eat (halal meat), how they pray (in the street), and for allegedly using their growing numbers to supplant France's civilization with their own. The massacre of Jewish schoolchildren and French paratroopers in March by an alleged Islamic extremist put Muslims in the spotlight anew and fed far-right fear mongering.
Under the banner of patriotism and preserving the national identity, Sarkozy is trawling for far-right votes as he tries to undo Hollande.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who ran an anti-immigration and anti-Europe campaign and sowed fears that France is being Islamicized, placed a strong third in the April 22 first-round vote. Though she was eliminated, her 18 percent score was a historic high for her National Front party and her supporters could now boost Sarkozy's support in the runoff.
For some Muslim religious leaders, it is time to act.
"We don't live on Mars. We live in France and we are constantly listening to what is happening," said Kamel Kabtane, the rector of the Lyon mosque, who was among a group of imams at some 30 mosques in southeast France pressing Muslims to vote.
"By this initiative, we want to show that Muslims aren't citizens of the second zone ... They can vote for whom they want but be present in the voting booth," he said.
The more than 5 million Muslims in France — the largest such population in western Europe — could potentially prove a decisive weight for or against a candidate. But experts say their footprint on the political landscape is nearly invisible.
The French model of integration is officially colorblind, demanding that immigrant minorities forgo their customs to meld into the universe of Frenchness. Statistics on race, ethnic origin and religion are formally banned, though researchers find ways to circumvent the rule, like using last names to deduce who is who.
Kabtane said the Muslim get-out-the-vote initiative in southeast France was the first of its kind, although some mosques in the Paris area are also asking Muslims to go to the polls.
In most cases, imams say they make a point not to advise the faithful how to vote. However, an expert on secularism, Jean Bauberot, says the anti-Muslim rhetoric by the right makes the preferred candidate clear — the one on the left.
"In the current atmosphere, Nicolas Sarkozy is doing all he can to alienate the Muslim electorate ...," Bauberot said. "When they (imams) say go out and vote, people think ... you shouldn't vote for Sarkozy."
For the head of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, such calls to vote are dangerous because they risk dragging a religion into politics, and "I refuse it."
The Paris mosque issued a statement saying it opposed the Lyon call.
"Mobilize, yes, but not in the name of Islam," he said. "In the name of justice, the economy, housing projects, misery, unemployment. But not in the name of Islam."
However, other Paris imams have pressed for Muslims to vote, including Mohamed Saleh Hamza who heads the northern Paris mosque where, until last fall, the faithful spilled into the street to pray because crowds had grown too big to fit inside.
For Le Pen, the street prayers were ammunition for her anti-Islam cause. Sarkozy took up the call and a giant prayer room was opened in a firehouse barracks where thousands now pray. At Friday's prayer service in the new space, there was no mention of the presidential election; the sermon was on the power of love.
Earlier, however, mosque leader Hamza had called for Muslims to go to the polls.
Muslims "have a tendency not to vote. Now, we're telling them that they are full citizens," Hamza said. "They're not organized yet, but that will come."
The calculations of the Mosque of Paris puts the number of Muslim voters at some 10 percent. It's a diverse population, most with family origins in former colonies in North Africa and Saharan Africa, and political opinions are not homogenous.
Experts say that Muslims in poor neighborhoods and Muslim youth tend to vote for the left.
Sarkozy has walked both sides of the line in addressing Muslims. While campaigning, he has spoken out against Muslim prayers in the street, the multiplication of halal butchers and the immigrant flux, in France seen as mainly Muslim. However, he embraced the Muslim population at the start of his term in 2007, appointing two ministers of Muslim North African origin and working for an "Islam of France."
Well before that, he was behind the creation of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, bringing France's diverse Muslim population under the same umbrella group. As interior minister, he was even once a guest speaker at the annual pow-wow of the powerful fundamentalist Union of Islamic Organizations of France, or UOIF — only to be booed for saying headscarves must be removed in identity card photos.
Sarkozy initiated last year's law banning face-covering Islamic veils and is no longer in the good graces of the UOIF. He forbade six guest speakers from abroad from attending this year's gathering on the grounds that they preach a radical brand of Islam.
UOIF leader Ahmed Jaballah called this year for Muslims to vote at the close of the gathering.
The director of the widely respected Bondy Blog, born during the 2005 riots in France's housing projects, says that many Muslims are more French than politicians think, and want respect.
"There is a part of the population that is French first of all, but not recognized as such," said Nordine Nabili. "They try to drag this population into cultural, ethnic or religious issues, but it is all about social suffering, really. There is the will of a whole generation saying, 'I am French. You need to accept me as I am.'"
For Jamel Nouri, leaving Friday prayers at the Paris mosque, "Nicolas Sarkozy fell into the trap of the National Front. He was dragged through the mud."
Sarkozy may get one reprieve, by default, the Paris mosque rector suggests.
"If Muslims were organized, it would be dangerous for Sarkozy," Boubakeur said. But "between the danger and the inconveniences, we keep quiet."
Oleg Cetinic of Associated Press Television News in Paris contributed to this report.