When French nationalist politician Phillipe de Villiers decried the "Islamization of France" in his book "The Mosques of Roissy" this spring, he was called xenophobic, extremist, paranoid -- and a best-selling author. Indeed, despite some heavy criticism of his views, the French were snatching up his book in droves, and the government started heeding his warnings.
"Islamists and criminals from the housing projects are working in concert to put the airport under Shariah law, threatening managers and the rare employees of French origin," he wrote. Two months after de Villiers' claims that "Allah's workers" had access to sensitive security zones at Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy ordered all unofficial prayer sites in the airport closed. Now, as a result of an anti-terrorism investigation, 72 Muslim airport employees have been stripped of their security clearances.
The workers -- who are mainly baggage handlers and aircraft cleaners -- are accused of having visited terrorist training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. One is thought to have been close to a senior figure in an Algerian terrorist group with links to al-Qaida, and another is thought to have been a friend of "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid. Reid is currently serving a life prison sentence in Colorado for attempting to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami in 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoe.
Charles de Gaulle airport -- also called the "Roissy" -- is located north of Paris, and many of its employees are Muslims of north-African descent who live in the rundown suburbs nearby. De Villiers claims in his book that clandestine mosques line the tunnels beneath the airport's runways and that some luggage handling companies employ members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Workers and unions complain the suspensions amount to religious discrimination. Legal suits and labor strikes are on the table. France's largest trade union, the CFDT, filed a discrimination lawsuit in mid-October over the revocations, while 10 affected workers are taking legal action in individual capacities. Now the unions representing the airport workers have announced that they are meeting next Tuesday to consider strike action. On the following Friday, a court in Cergy-Pontoise will hear the case for unfair dismissal brought by six men who were sacked.
Jacques Lebrot -- the French government official who oversees the airport -- insists that religion is not the issue. "Monsieur or Madame X who goes to pray in a mosque and travels to Mecca for the pilgrimage is not the problem for us. But we will ask questions if we find someone who has spent holidays several times in Pakistan," he told reporters. Eric Moutet -- a lawyer for the suspended workers -- told the New York Times: "We have not seen any objective evidence against our clients. The only common denominator we see today is that they are all Muslim."
For de Villiers, though, that may be reason enough. As head of the far-right party, Movement for France, he's basing his 2007 presidential bid on an anti-immigrant platform. His campaign is unlikely to garner any significant proportion of the vote, but he's sure to sell a few more books.