Faith, Politics Clash Over Muslim-run Women’s Gym In France

Syrian refugees end protest in France

Credit: Reuters/Charles Platiau By Agnieszka Flak and Lionel Laurent MILAN/PARIS | Tue Oct 1, 2013 8:07pm BST MILAN/PARIS (Reuters) – Franco-Dutch carrier Air France-KLM (AIRF.PA) said on Tuesday it was open to merging with Alitalia in a move seen as the best solution for turning round the loss-making Italian airline. But both sides said any tie-up would depend on certain conditions being met first, as time runs out for indebted Alitalia. Italy’s government and Alitalia shareholders have been betting on Air France-KLM raising its stake from 25 percent and possibly even taking control of the company. But there are disagreements over financial commitments and a possible business strategy for the Italian group should a merger go ahead, sources familiar with the matter said. “Our conditions for helping Alitalia are very strict. If the conditions are met, I am ready to go ahead,” Air France-KLM Chief Executive Alexandre de Juniac told French daily Les Echos on Tuesday, without giving more details on the terms he had in mind. Gilberto Benetton, who invests in Alitalia via motorway group Atlantia’s 8.9 percent stake in the airline, said earlier on Tuesday he would welcome Air France-KLM taking control of the group, but warned Italy’s interests should be protected first. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, other ministers, banks and Alitalia’s management met on Tuesday to find a way of beefing up Alitalia’s finances to give it greater negotiating clout in its dealings with Air France-KLM. But the talks failed to reach any decision because of the uncertain political climate and another meeting was called for next week. There are worries that any Air France-KLM investment would clash with Italy’s ambition to make Rome a hub for intercontinental flights, and instead turn Alitalia into a regional player and trigger job cuts. But de Juniac’s comments signaled he did not doubt Alitalia’s ability to operate on long-haul routes – a strategy the group is betting on to revive its fortunes after its plans to become a strong regional player came unstuck in the face of tough competition and lower demand. “Air France-KLM-Alitalia, if one day we are united, could become a very great European brand.

The gym, which opened last month in the up-market Paris suburb of Le Raincy, is owned by a French Muslim couple who say their religion and appearance – she wears a headscarf and he a long beard – are the reason the mayor wants to shut them down. The squabble has erupted five months before conservative mayor Eric Raoult, who says safety is his only concern, seeks re-election in nationwide municipal polls in which the anti-immigrant National Front is expected to gain ground. It reflects France’s uneasy relations with its five million-strong Muslim minority, Europe’s largest, and tensions over an official policy of secularism Muslims say is used against them. “‘I don’t want any veiled women in my town,’ he told us,” said gym manager Nadia El Gendouli, who sports a piercing in her nose and plunging neckline. “‘You’re a fundamentalist!’ he told me.” At the town hall on Thursday, Raoult denied the allegation that he did not want women wearing Muslim veils in Le Raincy. “These are fundamentalists, they lie!” he shouted. “They consider because they’re Muslims they’re victims and they consider they have more rights,” he said. Local security officials said on Friday the gym met all safety standards. That meant it could stay open, but it did not guarantee it would now be out of the political spotlight. The Orty Gym – Orty means “my sisters” in Arabic – is a 200 square-meter space with pink work-out equipment, freshly-painted fuchsia and orange walls and a large room where classes such as Hip Hop, Zumba, Stretching and Step are offered. Some of the 70 women exercising in the room cover their hair with a headscarf but many do not as all races and religions are welcome, said Lynda Ellabou, who owns the gym with her husband. SECULARISM Ellabou, wearing a fashionable pink and black headscarf, said their problems began in June after Raoult realized the couple planning to open the gym on a commercial strip on the periphery of the suburb of 14,000 residents were Muslim. “When he saw my (bearded) husband he had a shock. ‘You’ve rented a place where?’ he asked us,” Ellabou recalled. “‘You’re going to put a veiled woman at the reception desk too?'” “In the end he made us understand it wasn’t going to be possible to open,” she said, adding Raoult later objected to the gym’s lack of parking and steps leading to the emergency exit.

An Alitalia plane passes an Air France plane on the tarmac of Charles de Gaulles International Airport in Roissy near Paris, January 8, 2013. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Housing Minister Cecile Duflot, a leader of the ecologist Greens coalition partners to the ruling Socialists, denounced Valls for betraying the core human rights values that France prided itself on, and demanded that Hollande reprimand him. Seeking to heal a widening rift between centrists and left-wingers in his coalition over the issue, Hollande took both Duflot and Valls to task at his weekly cabinet meeting. “I insist that all ministers pay full mind to their mission, their behaviour, how they express themselves and of course, how they act,” Hollande told the meeting, according to presidential aides. “Being a member of a government does not mean you cannot have your point of view but it does mean you have to strictly apply the rules I have just set out,” he said, adding: “the debate should be inside the government not in public”. The dispute not only exposed tensions within Hollande’s 17-month-old coalition but raised new questions over the authority of the president, whose poll ratings have fallen to 23 percent amid dissatisfaction over his record on the economy and jobs. Hollande said he was also asking Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who is suffering from low popularity ratings too, to ensure better coordination in the government. The far-right National Front has signalled it plans to make the Roma issue a central campaign theme for next March’s municipal elections. It is hopeful it can tap a protest vote against Hollande to score gains in town halls across France. Valls’ tough talk on law and order has made him Hollande’s most popular government minister. A poll released at the weekend showed three-quarters of French agreed with his comments on the Roma. Hollande’s government has sought to distance itself from a hard-line policy under conservative former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who explicitly accused Roma of links to crime and launched a programme of deportations. Yet since the beginning of the year some 13,000 Roma have been evicted from illegal camps and welfare groups say the failure of schemes to re-house their inhabitants means they find themselves on the streets or simply set up new camps elsewhere. Moreover France this week said it was currently opposed to Romania and Bulgaria joining the European Union’s passport-free Schengen zone when current restrictions on the movement of Romanian and Bulgarian citizens end in January 2014.

France’s Hollande tells ministers to end Roma row

5, 2013 at 3:22 PM CALAIS, France, Oct. 5 (UPI) — A group of 60 Syrian nationals seeking asylum in Britain ended their protest in a French port after being denied passage, officials said. Members of the group had said they thought they wanted to settle in France but since arriving, they’ve been treated “worse than animals” with French police targeting them and being forced to live outside. After their treatment in France, the group stated they wanted to go to Britain but the British government denied them passage to seek asylum after taking over a ferry staging area in Calais since Wednesday, Skynet News said Saturday. British officials said they would consider individual requests for asylum but refused to take the group of 60 refugees together. Two members of the group climbed to the roof of the building and threatened to jump if their demands weren’t met. Another 20 were said to be on a hunger strike, officials said. In the end, the group dispersed peacefully. French officials said they would fast-track their asylum applications after the protest began but were rebuffed. Now, French police said, they suspect the individuals will live on the streets illegally and may eventually seek safe passage to Britain as undocumented aliens. Though France has said it would accept Syrian refugees looking for political asylum, only about 850 applicants of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians have gone there, the United Nations said. 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.