Why France is in a tizzy over Juliette Boubaaya
Politicians support her, but many French are unready for a Muslim Miss France
She's 19 years old, 5ft 9in tall, has brown hair with hazel eyes, and lists her hobbies as dance and handball. And, of course, she adores animals. Nothing that unusual about Juliette, who'll be representing the department of Picardie in Saturday's Miss France beauty pageant. Nothing unusual that is, except one thing, her surname. Boubaaya.
In recent weeks that name has come to define Juliette much more than her beauty or the fact that she hopes one day to join the police force. For Boubaaya is an Algerian name and Juliette is a practising Muslim who prays five times a day.
In the past, the jury has elected girls from Guadeloupe and Tahiti as its Miss France, but the prospect of a Muslim beauty queen has created a stir in France ahead of the final in Nice.
Political correctness may have done for beauty pageants in the Anglo-Saxon world, but the annual Miss France is still one of the highlights of the French television year. Broadcast live on TF1, there is even an interactive website, where you can "put yourself in the jury's place" and weigh up the respective merits of the 37 mademoiselles.
There have been other Muslim contestants in the 89 years since the inaugural Miss France pageant but they were more modest than Juliette and refused to parade in a bikini. No such qualms for Miss Boubaaya, who happily donned a swimsuit on her way to becoming Miss Picardie, and only last month caused thousands of Frenchmen to choke on their croissants when Le Parisien, the country's best-selling tabloid, splashed a photo of Juliette lying seductively on the beach in a wet bikini.
The headline to the article was 'Proud of my religion and my beauty' and Miss Picardie described to the paper how she had "read the Koran and the Bible, and was more attracted by the Koran". Boubaaya then went on to explain that before entering the Miss Picardie competition, she had consulted her Imam on the matter of the swimsuit. "Go for it!" was his enthusiastic response.
The prospect of a Muslim Miss France has ruffled the country with Boubaaya attracting criticism from extreme elements among the Muslim community and the far right. The former disapprove of any woman wearing a bikini and they have also taken offence at Boubaaya's confession that she doesn't pray when she is involved in beauty pageants.
The Far right, meanwhile, simply don't want a Muslim woman as Miss France. "In Islam alcohol and pork are forbidden," wrote one blogger recently, "therefore it will be impossible for a Miss Muslim to promote the champagne, wine and sausage. Sorry, but France without those things is not France."
But for the French political class, Mademoiselle Boubaaya is a godsend. Here is a young, attractive French Muslim eager to join the police force "to help protect the country", who won't wear a veil because "I don't want to renounce my femininity", and who describes France's strength as being its tolerance of all races and religions.
What a shining example of vibrant multiculturalism at a time when the country is preparing for what promises to be an awkward national debate in February on 'l'identite nationale'.
The National Front, France's far right party, were quick to exploit people's concern at last month's announcement that the go-ahead had been given for the construction of the country's biggest mosque.
Readers of Le Figaro were asked if they agreed with the erection of an 8,600 square metre mosque with a 25m minaret in Marseille. Of the 35,000 people who responded to the poll, 71 per cent were against, with many of those angry that the mosque might in part be financed by state money, directly contravening the 1905 'laicite' law, which forbids the state to support any religion financially or otherwise. "In Brittany we don't have the right to build cultural centres focusing on Breton culture," wrote one Figaro reader, "but it's OK to build a mosque in Marseille."
Not surprisingly, such sentiments have resurfaced this week following Switzerland's vote to ban minarets, emphasising the gulf that exists between Europe's political elite and the people they govern. "Bravo Switzerland!!!" ran one message on the Le Parisien website, "and when will we have our referendum in France?"
In the short term the only vote the French have is to decide who will be Miss France 2010. This year, for the first time in the pageant's history, the public will be able to decide who wears the coveted crown, a source of worry perhaps for the country's ruling class, who will probably be the first to phone in on Saturday night and cast their vote for Juliette. ·
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