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Street prayers of protest 

Paris, 24th March. In a well-rehearsed gesture, hundreds of residents lay their intricate prayer mats the street and remove their shoes. For the fifth consecutive day, the Muslim community of Clichy is praying in the street. The muezzin sounds and they bend to pray, pressing their foreheads against the cold concrete. From above, all you can see is a sea of colourful bodies, kneeling down, tightly packed, with feet poking out and look oddly vulnerable in socks, close to the puddles that dot the ground on this balmy March day. In Clichy, a small town in the Parisian suburbs, the town hall has refused to renew the lease on a prayer hall, saying the space will be transformed into a library. Muslim associations have decided to pray in the street, until the townhall repeals their decision. 

“It’s not that we have anything against libraries, you know,’, Hamid Kazed, leader of the Union of Muslim associations of Clichy, says anxiously. “All we are asking for is a suitable place for Clichy’s 20 000 Muslims to pray! We’re not asking for money, we just want to renew our lease on our prayer hall !

Clichy is home to a large Muslim community, mainly second and third generation Maghrebian immigrants. They have been visiting the same mosque for decades, but the right-wing mayor elected in 2015 has refused to renew their lease, saying the space was needed to create a library. As from March they were forced to leave.

The mosque in question is a grey, sombre building, which hardly looks like it could ignite such strong feelings. But’s it’s the only prayer room in the town centre, and 3000 to 5000 people visited it every day.  “They struck the heart of the Muslim community. They took away our mosque and forced these poor people to pray in the rain, on the street! It’s pure hatred!” says Lina, a Muslim woman that lives nearby, and is sitting around on a bench, watching the heavily armed police men that guard the site day and night. The site is now inaccessible, blocked off by six large vans. Last week, fifty devotees had broken in to the mosque for a sit-in. They were dragged out by as many policemen, who released tear gas to force them to scatter.

The town hall argues that there is another prayer room in Clichy, but it’s outside of the town centre, in an industrial zone, between a rubbish tip and a factory. “I refuse to tell my children that that is where their place is in France!”, Marwan Mohammed, from the collective against islamophobia calls angrily into the microphone after the street prayers are over. “We are French citizens; we deserve our space! Our country is a country of freedom, and that is why we are proud of it. And so we too demand our freedom!’

Mr Marwan is originally from Clichy, and although in front of his audience he sounds confident, in private, he admits to being greatly troubled by the events.  “When you see things like this, when Muslims are pushed out of towns, to go pray in excluded areas, it creates the breeding ground for a lot of problems. Young people feel excluded, and it creates the breeding ground for terrorism, for extremism.”

A group of local non-Muslim residents has gathered to watch the prayers, and opinions are mixed. It’s dividing the community here. “This is disgraceful ! You can’t just block the streets like this !” grumbles Thomas. “If I was a Muslim, I would be with them !” retorts Marguerite.

But these divisions go far beyond the limits of this small French town. Muslim associations hoped that praying in the street would be a peaceful form of protest to force the town-hall to take action. But for some it is seen as a provocation. The French idea of laïcité or secularism frowns upon public shows of religion. Before long photos of Clichy make the rounds of twitter, stripped of their context and posted by supporters of the far-right  “Street prayers and cries of “allah akbar” to demand a mosque. We need to STOP the islamisation of our country!” tweeted Tiffant Joncour. “France is in danger.Marine, come quick!” tweeted a National Front supporter.

BATTLE OF THE BAGUETTES 

Traditional French bakeries fight chain stores over labor law changes

Small French bakeries are sparring with industrial bread makers over a 1919 labor law that forces bread vendors to close for at least one day a week.

 

At the end of October, the Federation of Baking and Pastry Companies, which represents the country’s main bakery franchises, requested that the government repeal the rule. “It’s a hundred-year-old, obsolete law, which goes against free enterprise,” said Matthieu Labbé the director of the Federation.

 

This immediately drew strong reactions from smaller, neighborhood bakeries, who claim that their ability to survive the competition of large stores is partly due to the fact that they all have to close one day a week - or in the case of supermarkets, close their bread aisle.  

 

“If there are no decrees like this, only the larger businesses can properly organize themselves to open seven days a week, and the smaller ones will be forced to,” Jean-Louis Mack, director of legal affairs at the National Confederation of Bakers and Pastry Makers, told the New York Times. He argues that this will put added pressure on already struggling family businesses, and discourage young people from entering the profession.

 

The Ministry of Economics has announced that it will meet with both sides to discuss the decree, but did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

 

The debate comes at a time where traditional French bakeries are rapidly losing ground to industrial bread makers. The latter’s share of the market of bread and pastries has risen from 31.5% in 2008 to 45% in 2016. Meanwhile, neighborhood bakeries are closing at alarming rates, especially in rural areas. Every year since 2013, France has lost 1200 bakeries. In the first trimester of 2017, a third of all French companies that went out of business were bakeries.

 

This is partly due to changes in French eating habits: bread is not quite the staple food it used to be. The French today eat “only” half a baguette per day on average, as opposed to one and a half in 1950. But bakeries also suffer from the competition of chain stores and supermarkets, which sell baguettes for as little as 40 euro cents, as opposed to one euro in most bakeries.

 

What may seem like a stereotypically French debate, involving labor laws and baguettes – each as unbending as the other – does in fact have far reaching consequences. A study conducted last year by the polling organization IFOP showed a direct link between the disappearance of local village shops and votes for the far right Front National party. “When rural towns lose their shops, like bakeries, they lose a feeling of “Frenchness”, and feel more isolated. This boosts the FN vote,” explained Jérôme Fouquet, the director of the study. Aside from being delicious, traditional French bread could just be a safeguard against extremism.

© 2018 by Eloise Stark

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