The 2007 presidential elections in France have been characterized by the participation of a large number of French citizens of North African origin in the electoral process. Four applied for candidacy: the former mufti of Marseilles Soheib Bencheikh, ambassador to France's Supreme Audio-Visual Council (CSA) Leila Bouachera, entrepreneur Rachid Nekkaz, and Zakaria Ben Mlouka, who holds both Tunisian and French citizenships. Only 12 of all applicants for candidacy managed to obtain the 500 mayors' signatures required to run – the most prominent of whom are Nicolas Sarkozy, Ségolène Royal, François Bayrou, and Jean-Marie Le Pen. None of the four prospective candidates of North African origin garnered the required number of signatures.
Nonetheless, the high percentage of French citizens of North African or Middle Eastern background involved in politics in France underscores these citizens' sense of belonging to the French Republic and their desire to participate in and make their voices heard via the political process.
Former mufti of Marseilles Soheib Bencheikh and CSA ambassador Leila Bouachera are strong advocates of secularism. Soheib Bencheikh says that France provides a unique opportunity for the emergence of a reformed Islam, and that Islam in Europe should undergo the same evolution as Christianity did during the Enlightenment, confining itself to the private sphere of life. For her part, Bouachera advocates the prohibition of "ostentatious" religious signs (as French law defines them), not only in schools but in all public places.
Rachid Nekkaz aims to promote effective democracy mainly through automatic voter registration of all French citizens. Zakaria Ben Mlouka, with a general program aiming at "peace and justice," is struggling more specifically to promote the rights of the immigrant and second-generation population.
Bouachera, Nekkaz and Ben Mlouka consider the left-right split in France to be obsolete, and that what is really at stake is the needs of the people. For his part, Bencheikh defines himself as "a leftist who deplores the disappearance of the true left."
The following is a short profile of the four:
Dr. Soheib Bencheikh
Soheib Bencheikh was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1961. He studied Islamic theology at Al-Azhar University and received his doctorate from the prestigious Parisian Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE). Formerly Mufti of Marseilles, France, he is a member of the French Council for the Muslim Religion and head of the French Institute for Islamic Science.
A strong advocate of secularism, Bencheikh believes that French-style secularism is a necessary precondition for the reform of Islam, and he calls on both Muslims and non-Muslims to participate in critiquing Islam, reinterpreting its holy texts, combating fundamentalism, and helping Islam adapt to the modern era.
Secularism is Key to a Reformed Islam; The French Experience Provides the Possibility of a Reformed Islam
According to Bencheikh, the rereading of texts "in light of modern thinking" can only take place in a secular context. He says that the French experience in particular provides the possibility of a reformed Islam, but that France will be able to foster the new reformed Islam only if it adheres to the secular values of the French Republic: "Islam... must adapt to modernity, century after century. I call on the French to remain faithful to the historical mission of France. I call on the Muslims to do the only thing that will save them: to adhere to the basic principles [of the French state], such as secularism."
Bencheikh explains that secularism is not atheism, but a set of laws enabling tolerance: "I believe that inter-religious understanding is another word for secularism... I believe that religion lives under the [protection] of secularism."
He adds that the left should remain faithful to its mission of protecting secularism: "I am a leftist, and I am appalled at the collapse of the ideals of the left [in France]..." He adds: "I am not against the left. On the contrary, I deplore its absence... The left was always less timid [than the right]..., more receptive to equality and universal causes. Where has this left gone? [The left today] wastes its energies looking for the most charismatic figure, for whom people will vote. Where are the ideas? Where are the plans [for the future]? Is there [still] a left that believes in its own message?"
Traditional Islam Has Become Obsolete
Bencheikh says that Islam came into being in tribal societies and is still focused on the tribal lifestyle. Thus, he says, it should be reformed to address the needs of modern life: "...Religious teachings were developed and formulated between the eighth and 12th centuries, and have not undergone any reform or updating since that time... [Muslims today] experience a dangerous discrepancy between their status as citizens and their status as believers..."
"This theology [traditional Islam] could not care less about living in harmony with other cultures, and knows nothing of pluralism based on universal principals like secularism and religious freedom – [principles that are] applicable to all religions and granted to all."
Political Islam Is Heresy
Bencheikh draws a distinction between Islam as a humanist religion and Islam as a political tool, stating that Muslim theologians have a responsibility to promote humanistic Islam: "It is up to us Muslims who are versed in religious science to make the distinction, in the minds of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, between a religion based on spirituality, humanism, and civilization [on the one hand], and a purely instrumental use [of religion], which aims at seizing worldly, material power [on the other]..."
"Islam Must Be Criticized, Just As Christianity Was [Criticized] During the Enlightenment"
He adds that not criticizing Islam is tantamount to contemptuous dismissal of it: "Islam must be criticized, just as Christianity was [criticized] during the Enlightenment. Islam is a message for all humanity. Therefore, it is not the property of Muslims [alone]. Everyone has the right to be fascinated by this religion, to adhere to it, to be critical of it, and even to be hostile to it... To avoid criticizing Islam is a form of segregation. "
Promote Modern Islam
Bencheikh adds that "the majority of Muslims – the ordinary people – want an open, moderate Islam. They want to hear innovative, modern discourse. This is [the trend] I want to promote... Moderate [Muslims] are the majority, but they do not take action. This is always the case with silent majorities. Radical movements, on the other hand, benefit from groups of activists [organized in] parties... There is a need for a thoroughly new organization [that will promote moderate Islam]."
Dr. Leila Bouachera
Leila Bouachera is the daughter of poor Algerian immigrants. She defines herself as a "Berber from the Aurès [region]." Born in Marseille in 1960, she has been a CSA ambassador for over 17 years.
Bouachera belonged to the now-defunct right wing parties Rassemblement pour la République (RPR) and Centre des Démocrates Sociaux (CDS) for many years, but was disappointed with them and left. Her political program aims to be neither left nor right. She believes that the two-party system has become obsolete. Following are some of the main elements of her program:
- Secularism: According to Bouachera, secularism must be strictly enforced in public places, and the veil, the yarmulke, and all other ostentatious signs of religious affiliation should be prohibited in all public places (not just in schools).
- The Establishment of the 6th Republic: She believes the French president has come to hold nearly monarchical powers under the 5th Republic. According to Bouachera, the president should have less say, and the authority of the parliament should be enhanced.
- The Reform of the Parliament: The parliament does not represent the diversity of the French population and the parity between men and women in the population. "True democracy has all its streams represented. It is necessary to introduce a measure of proportional [representation] in the parliamentary elections."
- Fair Representation of All Communities: Bouachera notes that there are very few French citizens of immigrant origin in the main bodies of the state, and says that the "children of the Republic" of immigrant origin should also be represented in the leadership.
- Foreigners Voting in Local Elections: Foreigners residing in France for at least 10 years should have the right to vote in local elections.
- Security: She advocates the legalization of soft drugs together with the dismantling of the dealers' networks that terrorize the suburbs. Regarding the suburbs with a high rate of violence, she says: "One must not wait [to take action] until students rape younger girls, which is more and more frequent – or until teachers are attacked."
- Building of cemeteries for Muslims: Bouachera believes Muslims should have cemeteries of their own, since "individuals have the right to live and die in dignity."
- Homosexuality: She is for homosexual marriage, and says homosexuals should be allowed to adopt children.
Taking into consideration the expected oil crisis, Bouachera believes in the need to enhance research in the fields of bio-fuel and alternative energy sources. She believes that Turkey, which has always been a strategic country, should enter the European Union, and that the U.S. forces should leave Iraq.
Born in 1972, the ninth of 12 children in a family of Kabyle Berber origin, Rachid Nekkaz grew up in the working-class suburbs of Paris. His parents came to France from Algeria in 1950. He obtained a masters degree in history from the Sorbonne.
Public Political Initiatives
In 2000, Rachid Nekkaz published a book based on interviews with the leaders of the G7 countries to respond to concerns at the dawn of the 21st century. The book, titled Millenarium: Which Future for Humanity? A Dialogue between World Youth and the 7 World Leaders was published in February, 2000.
After the start of the second Intifada, Rachid Nekkaz submitted a proposal to U.S. President Bill Clinton that U.N. headquarters be moved from New York to Jerusalem. He suggested that Jerusalem become an international city in an effort to achieve long-term peace in the Middle East.
In 1995, Nekkaz established an association to promote the use of multimedia in the immigrant suburbs of France.
In 2001, Rachid Nekkaz founded, along with Hakim el-Ghissassi, editor in chief of La Medina magazine, the Forum citoyen des cultures musulmanes (FCCM), an organization dedicated to promoting a more positive image of France's Muslim citizens.
A 21st-Century Democracy
Nekkaz believes that the division between left and right is obsolete, and that the next government should be a non-political national unity government since "there are good ideas everywhere" and "the problems of the French go far beyond this division." Also, Nekkaz believes that parliament should enjoy a greater say, thus restricting the authority of the president. In addition, Nekkaz favors the use of the Internet in the electoral process (for registration, updating of personal data, and voting). He believes this would motivate the people to take part in the electoral process, in contrast to current low voter turnout in France – not to mention the approximately 30% of French citizens who are not even registered to vote. To promote his idea, Rachid Nekkaz co-founded the Club des Elus Allez France (The "Go France" Elected Officials' Club). The Club advocates the automatic voter registration of all French citizens, in an effort to enhance effective democracy.
The fight against general discrimination on account of age, color, and gender must become a national priority since it has become stronger in the last few years. As a tool, Nekkaz suggests drawing lots in instances when there are many candidates with identical qualifications.
Nekkaz stands for citizenship for all foreigners residing in France legally for more than 10 years, provided that they commit to learning the French language and the principles of the French Republic. He also wishes to facilitate the naturalization of foreigners.
Public Services in Rural Areas
While collecting the 500 required signatures to enter the presidential race, Nekkaz toured the whole of France three times, and became highly attuned to the needs of small country villages. He demands that all mayors be paid (at least) the minimum legal salary, and that public services be provided to isolated villages – pointing to the fact that some lack day care facilities, schools, post offices, bakeries, groceries, pharmacies, and local physicians.
Zakaria Ben Mlouka
Ben Mlouka, 52, provides little information on his background. According to information provided by various contributors, that has not been denied by Ben Mlouka, his father is Tunisian and his mother is French. His wife and children are Tunisian. He is a veterinarian who resides in Tunis and reportedly holds both Tunisian and French citizenships. Following are some of his views:
- Security: Ben Mlouka says that the country is at peace and that one should not yield to alarming positions regarding security, which encourage mistrust towards immigrants. He says the discourse on insecurity was conceived to trigger a feeling of insecurity in the public opinion and to make immigration responsible for it.
- Salaries: Saying he "always wanted to be the candidate of the marginalized," he wishes to raise the minimum salary and supports a temporary five-year increase of the wealth tax.
- Equality: "I will reestablish justice and equality for all the French. This will be my priority. The French Republican values mention a community of citizens with identical rights and duties, without regard to their origins…"
- Discrimination: "Humiliation of the daughters and sons of the Republic only because they have a different origin, color or creed has become an ordinary and trivialized fact (…) The notions of discrimination and integration cannot be separated (…) I will make the fight against discrimination a national cause. France must quickly adopt a judicial arsenal allowing it to punish anyone guilty of discrimination. This is the only way to avoid another fall, 2005."
- Unrestricted Freedom of Expression for Historians: However, apparently referring to the French law prohibiting Holocaust denial, Ben Mlouka writes: "As in certain totalitarian countries, France has promulgated coercive laws restricting the freedom of expression of historians. For fear of being punished, they are told what they must look for and what they must find. This is unacceptable in France. These laws must be abolished (…) It is not up to politicians and the law to rewrite schoolbooks. I will take all necessary steps to bring to a halt such political intervention and ideological pressure exerted on researchers or historians who reappraise the past."
- The War in Iraq: "The Americans are our friends and allies. This is why I will tell them in due time that they must leave Iraq as soon as possible (…) It is up to the Iraqis alone to establish peace and security in their country."
- A United Europe: Ben Mlouka supports a Europe united not only economically but also politically and militarily, so that Europe can speak "with one voice" and be "independent from our transatlantic allies."
- Immigration: As a remedy to the immigration problem facing France, Ben Mlouka advocates assistance to "under-developed countries" and the "regularization of the status of foreigners in an irregular situation."
- The National Anthem: "I think we should change its words (…) The call for war and the references to blood and to foreign cohorts do not do honor to France."
*Nathalie Szerman is Director of MEMRI's North African Reformists Project.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.1368, "Former Marseilles Mufti Soheib Bencheikh: 'Islam Must Be Criticized, Just as Christianity Was [Criticized] During the Enlightenment; Islam is a Message for All Humanity – Therefore It Is Not the Property of Muslims [Alone],'" November 28, 2006, Former Marseilles Mufti Soheib Bencheikh: ‘Islam Must Be Criticized, Just as Christianity Was [Criticized] During the Enlightenment; Islam is a Message for All Humanity – Therefore It Is Not the Property of Muslims [Alone]’.
 The French Council for the Muslim Religion was established in 2003 with the support of then-interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, as an umbrella organization for Islamic associations.
 Marianne et le Prophète, l'Islam dans la France Laïque, Paris: Grasset, 2006.
 La Nouvelle République d'Alger (Algeria), July 8, 2006.
 Le Dauphiné Libéré (France), October 16, 2002.
 Charlie Hebdo (France), October 4, 2006.
 La Nouvelle République d'Alger (Algeria), July 8, 2006.
 Excerpts from Marianne et le Prophète, l'Islam dans la France Laïque, Paris: Grasset, 2006.
 Le Soir d'Algérie (Algeria), October 27, 2002.
 Le Parisien (France), October 3, 2006.
 Le Parisien (France), January 21, 2004.
 Hakim el-Ghissassi founded in 1998 the La Medina monthly, which features topics pertaining to Islamic societies in the world. Hakim el-Ghissassi has also founded the Internet site www.sezame.info which provides news on Islamic activities in France and Europe.
 Le Monde, December 8, 2006, http://abonnes.lemonde.fr/web/panorama/0,11-0,[email protected],0.html.
 This is a reference to the riots that spread across France in the fall of 2005 among youth of predominantly immigrant origin, burning hundreds of cars every night after Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy had termed them "racaille" (riffraff).
 For the electoral program, see: http://www.ben-mlouka-presidentielle-2007.fr/programme.html .