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In France, US advocacy for Muslim rights raises more than a few hackles

The US embassy in France has become a key promoter of Muslim and minority rights as part of a long-term strategy to ease the threat of terrorism. Some in France say the US is overstepping its bounds.

By Anita ElashContributor / February 17, 2011

Samuel L. Jackson (l.) and his wife LaTanya Richardson Jackson (r.) took a break from their holidays in France to stop by the Parisian suburb of Bondy with the American Ambassador to France Charles H. Rivkin (c.) to talk to young people from the area.

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Paris

After two years of trying, human rights activist Abdelaziz Dahhassi realized his dream late last year of setting up a think tank to find new ways to fight ethnic and religious discrimination in France. But it was the US State Department, and not the French government, that helped Mr. Dahhassi’s Lyon-based Association for the Convergence of Respect and Diversity finally get off the ground.

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“I’m not saying we couldn’t have done it without them, but their support is very important,” he says. “The Americans have a very interesting vision which can be very enriching for France.”

Dahhasi sees that vision as a pragmatic one that has done much to promote minorities and erase barriers between ethnic groups. He says he especially admires American affirmative-action programs and wants to study whether they would work in France.

But the project has also ignited controversy on French editorial pages and on political websites. Critics say that US diplomats are interfering in French domestic policy and trying to impose views on minorities and integration that are at odds with the French Constitution.

"They are criticizing us because we are not the United States, or more precisely, because we do not resemble them,” blogger Christine Tasin wrote on a website for The Republican Resistance, a nonpartisan group established last year to defend what it sees as French values. “[It] is a strategic plan to get France to do whatever the US wants.”

US seeks support among Europe's Muslims

American support for Dahhasi’s association is part of a broader program of public diplomacy created across Europe after the 9/11 attacks on the US to diffuse the threat of terrorism. A US embassy official in Paris says it was designed to “create mutual understanding” and to “show people there’s no good reason to fly airplanes into skyscrapers."

It has focused on seeking out and building relationships with potential leaders in Muslim and other minority groups. A key component has been the International Visitor Leadership Program, which for decades has sent members of the French elite on educational visits to the US. Its pre-2001 French alumni are nearly exclusively white. Last year, about a third of French participants belonged to minority groups, mostly Muslims.

Wafa Dahman, a French journalist of Tunisian background and founder of the French and Arabic broadcaster Radio Salam, spent three weeks with the program traveling across the US in 2008. She says she saw “America as it was, with all its strengths and faults,” learning about such things as high infant mortality rates in some poor US neighborhoods and affirmative-action programs implemented by police in Seattle trying to deal with tensions between Muslims and Sikhs.

"I discovered a very open society, one that is very different from France. At the same time, I saw there are many difficulties, but that the Americans are trying to find a solution,” she says.

'Moderate voices of tolerance'

A series of diplomatic cables revealed by the antisecrecy website WikiLeaks show that the current US ambassador in France, Charles Rivkin, has adopted an even more ambitious agenda meant to “amplify France's efforts to realize its own egalitarian ideals, thereby advancing US national interests.”

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