Well before the start of Friday prayers, rolls of mats tied with
string are waiting propped against the kerb. Perched on a plastic table
on the pavement outside the Al-Fath mosque, a loudspeaker is ready to
broadcast prayers to the street. As the faithful stream in from the
Métro station in this grim stretch of Paris’s 18th arrondissement,
past shops selling Algerian football shirts and green-and-gold woven
cloth from Togo, policemen guard roads that have been closed to traffic.
When the prayers begin, the streets are packed with hundreds of
worshippers kneeling on mats. The scene has become a symbol in a heated
debate over efforts to reconcile an assertive Islam with France’s
Of 2,000 mosques and prayer rooms in France, weekly prayers overflow
on to the streets in only a dozen places, mostly in Paris and Marseille.
Home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority (some 5m), France objects
because of its strict secularism or laïcité. This doctrine bars
religion from public life. In 2004 cross-party backing pushed through a
law that outlaws the headscarf (and other religious symbols) in public
schools. Next week a ban on the face-covering veil comes into force.
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