Sarkozy's France-Islam debate increasingly poisonous
A divisive debate about the place of Islam in French society on Tuesday became increasingly poisonous after Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the number of Muslims in the country was "a problem."
President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, which has called the debate for Tuesday, has been accused of trying to poach votes from the far-right National Front (FN) party which made strides in last month's local elections.
"It's true that the increase in the number of faithful in this religion (Islam), a certain number of behaviours, poses a problem," Gueant said on Monday.
Sarkozy's closest advisor before becoming minister in January, Gueant said that France's secular law dates from 1905 when there were "very few Muslims", while their number today is between five and six million.
The SOS Racisme rights group said it would lodge a legal complaint against Gueant, while the opposition socialists hit out at the minister's provocation.
"Since becoming interior minister, every time Claude Gueant says something, there's controversy," said Francois Hollande, a potential Socialist Party candidate in next year's presidential election.
"He's obssessed with talking about Muslims."
Gueant in March provoked the ire of the political left and rights groups after saying that French people "sometimes no longer feel at home" because of "uncontrolled immigration."
Such statements could have come straight from the mouth of FN leader Marine Le Pen, whose anti-immigration party is on the rise according to opinion polls, to the detriment of Sarkozy and his UMP party.
Several polls put Le Pen, who took over as party head in January from her father Jean-Marie, ahead of Sarkozy in a hypothetical first round presidential election.
Since taking over the party, Le Pen has tried to align her party with the European far-right, axed on the place of Islam in society.
She has repeatedly lashed out at Muslims who, lacking prayer space, worship in the streets of a tiny number of neighbourhoods in France.
The so-called "traditional" right has picked up the message, with Sarkozy himself condemning praying in the street while UMP head Jean-Francois Cope has vowed to take measures on the matter "in the coming days."
Cope is the driving force behind the contentious debate on Islam the UMP is hosting late Tuesday, which has been criticised by the left and the right, threatening even to implode the UMP.
Sarkozy's Prime Minister Francois Fillon will not take part in the debate having in February warned against any measure that could lead to the stigmatisation of Muslims in France.
In response, Cope last week accused Fillon of "not being a team player."
Other ministers have sought to distance themselves from the initiative, which will examine 26 UMP proposals on maintaining France's strict separation of religion and state.
The UMP wants, for instance, to draw up a law to forbid citizens rejecting a public service employee because of their sex or religion.
Cope says that such a measure would resolve what he called "complex situations" in hospitals where "women, often under pressure from their husbands, refuse to be treated by a male doctor."
He will also put a draft resolution to parliament, which has no legal weight, solemnly recalling France's cherished secular principles.
© 2011 AFP