Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Amongst division in France, one interfaith group comes together to celebrate Ramadan


The presidential election in France will be decided during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In the runoff - Marine Le Pen, who has a long history of anti-Muslim positions, and current President Emmanuel Macron. So when NPR's Eleanor Beardsley went to an iftar, she found politics at the dinner table.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This community center in the Paris suburb of Noisy-le-Sec is filling up as sunset and the moment to break the daylong fast approaches, and tables laden with lamb, chicken dates and hummus await. Sylvie Blumenfeld has her plate ready even though she's Jewish, not Muslim. Blumenfeld is part of the interfaith group Langage de Femmes, or Women's Voices, that has prepared this iftar.

SYLVIE BLUMENFELD: We like to share our culture. We invited them to a synagogue. We had a Shabbat dinner together. I think really it's the ignorance that drives people crazy and let them vote for the wrong people.

BEARDSLEY: Blumenfeld calls it a catastrophe that far-right leader Marine Le Pen is so close in the polls to President Emmanuel Macron for the runoff April 24. Soumiya Gherram, who is Muslim, has been on the group's annual trip to Auschwitz. She says she was deeply shaken.

SOUMIYA GHERRAM: (Through interpreter) After being there, I can't let even the slightest anti-Semitic comment pass. If somebody says Jews are rich, I say no. Cliches like that are harmful. I've seen where they can lead.

BEARDSLEY: These Muslim, Jewish and Christian women say mothers are best placed to fight racism and prejudice and pass values onto children and communities. France has Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish communities. The two groups have much in common with roots in North Africa. Fifty-year-old Larry Cohen is president of the synagogue in Noisy-le-Sec.

LARRY COHEN: (Through interpreter) We grew up Jewish and Muslim together in secular French schools. We had the same friends, the same passions. But over the years, a ditch has been dug between the communities. It wasn't there 40 years ago.

BEARDSLEY: Cohen says a new generation of immigrants has imported the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And there were the terrorist attacks carried out by radicalized French Muslims in 2015.


ERIC ZEMMOUR: (Speaking French).


BEARDSLEY: No one has exploited fears and divisions more than far-right candidate Eric Zemmour, who came in fourth in the first round. He's out of the race but poisoned the debate. He called Islam incompatible with French values. That's hogwash, says business consultant Fatima Dagdag, who says Muslims live well in France.

FATIMA DAGDAG: We have the chance of living all together. It's a real positive point. We are not like in Holland, ghetoise, in ghettos. France put its diversity in a high level. We see it at school, we see it in companies, and we fight for it, which is a good point.

BEARDSLEY: Though Dagdag admits life is harder for Muslim women who wear the hijab to cover their hair.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting in French).

BEARDSLEY: After the meal and some spiritual nourishment, the women leap onto the dance floor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting in French).

BEARDSLEY: Samia Essabaa, director of Langage de Femmes, has taken off her heels to kick it up alongside her Jewish and Christian friends.

SAMIA ESSABAA: It was a great success. I'm very happy. I'm very delighted. And I wanted them to learn to discover what Islam is really (speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Standing beside Essabaa, Jewish co-director Suzanne Nakache thanks her friend for opening the Muslim world to her with all of its generosity and warmth. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Noisy-le-Sec, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.