Sarkozy defends immigration ministry idea

14th March 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 14, 2007 (AFP) - French presidential frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy was put on the defensive Wednesday over a plan to control immigration as up-and-coming challenger Francois Bayrou continued to shake up the campaign.

PARIS, March 14, 2007 (AFP) - French presidential frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy was put on the defensive Wednesday over a plan to control immigration as up-and-coming challenger Francois Bayrou continued to shake up the campaign.

With less than six weeks to go before the first round of voting, Sarkozy's recent proposal to create a ministry for immigration and national identity is being portrayed as a campaign ploy designed to appeal to French nationalists.

"I'm not afraid to talk about national identity," Sarkozy said late Tuesday during a campaign swing through the eastern city of Besancon, not far from the Swiss border.

"I understand that for some, it is a bad word. I understand that to talk about national identity might be inconvenient. I understand that it is a taboo subject and that it is dangerous territory," he said before thousands of supporters.

"I will continue to talk about national identity because I believe that (...) France is in the throes of an identity crisis, that this crisis is serious, deep-seated and dangerous," said Sarkozy.

Socialist rival Segolene Royal has accused Sarkozy of making "an intolerable connection between immigration and a threat to national identity" but far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has applauded the proposal.

Immigration has become a sensitive issue in the campaign for the April-May election following rioting in 2005 in predominantly immigrant suburbs across the country that highlighted France's strained integration policies.

Hundreds of buildings were burned and thousands of cars torched during the three weeks of rioting in October and November 2005, the worst civil unrest in France in nearly half a century.

Centrist Francois Bayrou, dubbed "the silent tsumani" by the French press, used a visit to the Paris suburbs to launch a scathing attack on Sarkozy's plan unveiled last week.

"National identity is not a matter for a ministry," said Bayrou, whose poll ratings have risen spectacularly over the past months.

"The first thing to do is avoid pitting people against each other by saying that the nation is under threat," he said.

"A president's duty is to ensure that the French people can live together."

Bayrou's rise in the polls is sowing panic in the ranks of the Socialist Party, which fears a repeat of the humiliating defeat in 2002 when their candidate Lionel Jospin came third behind Le Pen, failing to qualify for the second round of voting against Jacques Chirac.

The leader of the small Union for French Democracy (UDF) party is at 24 percent in the polls in the first round. This is up from 12 percent in mid-January, and just one point behind Royal, according to the latest survey.

Royal's spokesman Arnaud Montebourg described Bayrou as a "political opportunist", saying he could fit the sum of his electoral programme "on the back of a postage stamp."

Bayrou is campaigning on a platform that calls for a government of national unity that would unite the right and left.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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