PARIS, France — Gerard Brazon was uneasy. Something "unhealthy" and "dishonest" was afoot in France. It was Islam, decided the 58-year-old retired economic consultant turned blogger. And he was not alone in his concern.
On Dec. 18, Brazon joined hundreds of like-minded people to hear a procession of speakers from countries such as Switzerland, Austria, Belgium and the United States detail the dangers of Islam in Europe, notably the religion’s fundamental incompatibility with modern Western society, many of them said.
“Increasingly, freedom of religion is overtaking individual freedom,” said Brazon at the close of the first International Conference on the Islamization of Our Countries, lamenting the erosion of secular France.
The conference, held under the gaze of police and private security, was part revival preaching to the converted and part political drive to gather steam ahead of the French presidential campaign season. But for Brazon and others, it was also a “point of departure.” Organizers hailed the event as the birth of “a resistance movement against European Islamization.”
“Maybe you will have been the starting point of something in France and in Europe,” said Oskar Freysinger, the headline speaker, who stoked the crowd’s fervor after making a dramatic entrance surrounded by bodyguards wearing dark sunglasses, low-slung caps and black scarves covering their faces. As he entered, the crowd chanted his name.
Freysinger, a member of the Swiss People’s Party, is best known for his involvement last year in a successful campaign against the construction of minarets in Switzerland, a debate that rages on across Europe. His speech was a mixture of gibes against soft-on-immigration liberals and calls for “revolution."
“What’s at stake is your mortal soul,” Freysinger told the crowd.
Organizers estimated that more than 1,000 people paid the 10 euro ($13) entrance fee to attend. Freysinger later called the audience “a true microcosm of society,” as he marveled at its diversity: Marxists, feminists, Socialists and members of the UMP, the ruling French right party.
What set the gathering apart was the fact that it brought people together from across borders around a single issue, said a lawyer for an anti-racism organization that had lobbied for the event’s cancellation.
Bernard Schmid, of the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples (MRAP), said far-right political groups that are anti-immigrant or anti-Semitic or anti-Roma have existed previously, citing groups in countries including the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden, but if they joined forces it would be a new phenomenon.
“There is an identification of one common enemy,” Schmid said. “What is new is the common work, not the ideological profile.”
In early January, MRAP plans to file lawsuits accusing some of the event's speakers of inciting racial hatred. As proof, the organization will submit recordings of the proceedings, which were broadcast live on the internet. During the event, organizers told the crowd that some 50,000 people had watched online, eliciting wild applause. The final tally put that number above 240,000.
One speaker, Elisabeth Wolff of Austria, drew a standing ovation after describing how she was charged with “incitement to hatred” following a private seminar during which she quoted religious texts, including the Koran.
“I was not silenced, nor will they ever succeed in silencing me,” Wolff said to another stirring round of applause. She remarked that her case was not about the law but a political trial “intended to silence someone who speaks out against the barbaric nature of sharia law.”
“When there are enough Muslims living in Europe — and it doesn’t have to be a majority of the population, just somewhere around 15 or 20 percent — we will be living under Islamic law, and not the laws that presently govern us,” she told the audience.
Islam and mosques are ideas “that have nothing to do with Europe,” said Bruno Vendoire, a spokesman for Bloc Identitaire, the political group that organized the event and is vying to get a candidate on the 2012 presidential ballot. “We have our civilization to preserve and our civilization is Greco-Latin.”
Vendoire said the gathering was intended to build on the "sausage and wine" parties the group held in June in response to Muslims praying in the streets in some Parisian neighborhoods because of overflowing mosques. Earlier this month, Marine Le Pen, the vice-president of the National Front party, compared those prayers to a World War II occupation, prompting MRAP to announce it would file suit.
For Brazon, the issues go beyond prayer in the streets to more basic changes in France. He complains of neighborhoods where Africans are in the majority and he doesn't see anyone who looks like him. He says there are suburbs where young, white French men must assimilate to the speech and dress styles of young, Arab men, where women are not free to decide for themselves whether or not to wear a veil.
“I like to feel like a foreigner when I’m in a foreign country,” said Brazon. “When you start to feel foreign in your own country, you start to ask questions.”