PARIS Anti-Muslim attacks and insults have risen steadily in France in recent years as some politicians and media increasingly present Islam as a problem for French society, a Muslim rights group said on Wednesday.
Hostility rises when Islam is in the news, for example last year when an Islamist killed seven people or when a politician accused Muslim children of stealing classmates' snacks, the Committee against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) said.
The CCIF welcomed a European Parliament decision on Tuesday to lift the legal immunity of far-right leader Marine Le Pen so she can be tried on racism charges for comparing Muslims praying in the streets here to the wartime Nazi occupation of France.
The group said in its annual report that anti-Muslim acts rose to 469 last year, after 298 in 2011 and 188 in 2010. The rise reflected trends cited by other recent reports that also noted increasing levels of anti-Semitism and racism in France.
CCIF President Samy Debah said Le Pen and other politicians were making anti-Muslim rhetoric commonplace. France's estimated five million Muslims form the largest Islamic minority in Europe but are poorly represented in politics and business.
"There is a link between the political discourse and the rise of these violent acts and discrimination against the Muslim community," Debah told a news conference.
The CCIF report said anti-Muslim acts were increasingly aimed against people, especially women, rather than institutions such as mosques, cemeteries and shops. Attacks against mosques had almost doubled to 40 in 2012 compared with 2011, it said.
"VECTOR OF ISLAMOPHOBIA"
The report called France's civil service "one of the principal vectors of Islamophobia" because it said bureaucrats often over-interpreted official secularist policies to wrongly refuse to serve Muslim women wearing headscarves.
By law, civil servants and girls in state schools are barred from wearing headscarves, but adults using a public service are not. The report said some officials, though, refused to conduct a civil wedding or issue documents if the woman concerned covered her hair.
Debah said the CCIF hoped an investigating magistrate would now order Le Pen to stand trial for the comments about Muslims praying in the streets, which happens when small mosques overflow with worshippers, especially on Islamic feast days.
This briefly closes some streets in large cities, which prompted Le Pen to describe it as an occupation in 2010. She used her immunity as a European Parliament deputy to avoid answering a summons to meet an investigating magistrate.
"I stand by my words and I'll defend them in court," she told BFM television after the parliament voted to lift her immunity at the request of the snubbed magistrate.
Her far-right National Front party ranks almost equal in polls with the main opposition UMP party, whose leader Jean-Francois Cope raised a storm last year by saying Muslim children stole chocolate pastries from non-Muslim classmates to keep them from eating at school during Ramadan.
The National Front has also gained ground as high unemployment and an embarrassing scandal sap support for the governing Socialists.
Le Pen's argument that she is being harassed by political opponents has proved popular with her supporters. If found guilty of inciting racial hatred, she would face a maximum penalty of one year in jail and 45,000 euros in fines.
(Editing by Pravin Char)