The French government has shut down at least three mosques and four informal Muslim prayer rooms out of concern that they were contributing to Islamic radicalisation, the French interior minister announced Wednesday.
The minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, told the National Assembly that the action was necessary after the deadly terror attacks in and around Paris on November 13, which left 130 people dead and hundreds wounded.
“There will be complete firmness against those that preach hatred in France,” he said.
Two of the shuttered mosques are in the greater Paris region and one is in Lyon; four “clandestine” prayer rooms were closed in Nice. The closures are to last only as long as the national state of emergency does, Cazeneuve said.
The focus on prayer rooms is relatively new. News media reports suggested that the police in several countries were giving closer scrutiny to such places, generally in storefronts or residences.
It was hard to tell from Cazeneuve’s comments how great a risk the three mosques were thought to present. The French authorities have detained or expelled imams for hate speech, but none connected with the closed mosques, an Interior Ministry official said. However, when the police searched the homes of several people in leadership positions at one of the mosques, they reported finding a revolver, a hidden hard drive, documents about jihad and an undeclared Koranic school.
Politics were also at play. France is to hold regional elections this Sunday and next, and the Socialist government of President François Hollande faces a test from right-leaning parties. The crackdown on mosques appeared calculated to present Hollande’s government as tougher than that of his conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
“How many mosques were closed for radicalisation during the last 10 years? None,” Cazeneuve told the assembly. “How many have been closed since the state of emergency and the recent weeks? Four.”
His staff explained later that when Cazeneuve said four, he was referring to the locations of the closures, but that in fact in Nice, it was four prayer rooms that were closed.
Referring to Sarkozy’s time in office, he continued, “How many preachers of hate, imams appealing to terrorism, were expelled between 2007 and 2012?” The figure he gave was 19, compared with 65 imams and preachers expelled since the Socialists took power.
Even so, Cazeneuve said France was still committed to individual rights: “It is terrorism that threatens our freedoms today, not the state of emergency.”
Cazeneuve said the pace of government raids and detentions of terror suspects had not slowed. Official tallies show that 263 people have been taken in for questioning, and almost all of those have been detained, while another 330 people have been put under house arrest.