Muslim leaders and groups are warning against a rising climate of "Islamophobia" in France as the government vows to stamp out extremism in any form.
The statements follow the arrest on August 11 of a military serviceman suspected of planning an attack on a mosque outside the city of Lyon. The 23-year-old suspect, stationed at a local air force base, reportedly planned a gun attack on the mosque to coincide with the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Described by the Interior Ministry as "close to the extreme right," the suspect has also been accused of carrying out an earlier mosque attack.
Reacting to the arrest, Kamel Kabtane, rector of the Grand Mosque of Lyon, called for government action to counter the fear of Muslims.
"It's a plague that needs to be eradicated altogether," Kabtane said. "Why couldn't we firmly tackle the issue by forming a [parliamentary] commission against Islamophobia -- to first know what its causes are and [see] how we can fight [against it] together?"
In the wake of the arrest, Interior Minister Manuel Valls has reiterated his determination "to fight against all forms of violence inspired by the most extremist ideologies that affect the values of the republic."
'Banalization Of Certain Ideas'
According to the Committee Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), reported actions and threats against Muslims have risen steadily in recent years.
"Unfortunately, we see a banalization of certain ideas from the far right," says CCIF spokesman Marwan Muhammad, "that are being spread in much more conventional parties and that are then taken by average citizens who act in terms of discriminations, insults and, unfortunately, physical aggressions."
The group reported 108 such cases in the first half of the year, representing a 35 percent increase compared to last year.
Arson, physical attacks, and insults toward Muslims are among the incidents cited in the report. A large number of the incidents took place as citizens conducted routine transactions at state offices, and most of them involved women wearing a veil.
Over the course of nine days in July, the CCIF reported nine cases of aggression against veiled women.
In July, Valls denounced as "unacceptable" a reported rise of violence against Muslims in France, adding that the country must be "uncompromising" toward those who attack people for their religious beliefs, as well as "all fundamentalists."
But he also warned that, "For Salafists, Islamophobia is a Trojan horse aimed at destabilizing the republican pact."
The government recently dissolved a number of shadowy far-right groups following the death of a far-left activist in a scuffle. Valls' comments came after police clashed last month with crowds protesting the arrest of a man who allegedly attacked a police officer after his wife was ticketed for wearing a full-face Islamic veil in public.
Dozens of cars were set alight and a 14-year-old boy suffered a serious eye injury in two nights of unrest in the Paris suburb of Trappes and an adjoining town.
In June, the identity check of a woman wearing a full-face Islamic veil led to clashes between security forces and bystanders in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil.
Among many Muslims, a growing stigmatization from the legislation and the media, combined with a resurgent far right, are seen as reasons the French population has become increasingly aggressive.
Florian Philippot, vice president of the far-right National Front party, has denied that intolerance is growing in France, saying the country is "open" but "hates communitarianism."
"The are growing tensions between communities because we have entered a communitarianist society. Here is the problem," Philippot says. "By not solving the problems of Islamism, Islamic radicalism, by negating this problem, by saying this problem does not exist, that if we talk about it we are racists [and] intolerant, then, of course, it backfires on all Muslims."
Secular France has struggled to separate religion and state and to assimilate its 5 million-strong Muslim population, the largest in Western Europe.
In past years, France turned to legislation to stifle public displays of Islamic faith. The move further alienated Muslims, who were increasingly claiming they were being kept out of mainstream society and the job market.
In 2004, lawmakers passed a law banning "ostentatious" religious symbols in public schools, a measure directed at Islamic head scarves. And in 2011, France enforced a law banning full-face veils from public places.
In a report set to be delivered to the government later this year, the official High Council for Integration proposed extending the 2004 ban to universities. It said the measure is aimed at defusing a "growing number of disputes" caused by students wearing religious garb and demanding prayer space and special menus at universities.