PARIS (Reuters) - Islam has emerged as a central issue in the campaign for French local elections Sunday that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party hopes to win by taking a tough line on the integration of France’s large Muslim minority.
Sarkozy, who faces an uphill battle for reelection next year, has set the tone by blurring the border between his UMP party and the National Front, the once-shunned anti-immigrant party that recently overtook him in opinion polls.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant, until recently Sarkozy’s chief of staff in the Elysee Palace, has fleshed this out with a series of statements flirting with the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has made National Front leader Marine Le Pen so popular.
“The French don’t feel like they’re at home here anymore,” Gueant said this month in a verbal wink and nod at voters upset by the large numbers of Muslims in the country. “They want France to remain France.”
The minister has called the Western-led air strikes against Libya a “crusade,” evoking Christian-Muslim conflict, and suggested that patients in public hospitals must avoid wearing religious symbols — another issue concerning mainly Muslims.
This rhetorical escalation came as France neared a runoff vote Sunday in local council elections. Le Pen’s National Front surged to win 15 percent of votes in the first round on March 20, just two points behind Sarkozy’s UMP party.
Both the centre-right government and Le Pen declare their aim is to defend “laicite” — the aggressive French secularism that strives to keep religion out of the public sector.
But amid debate about offering halal food in school canteens and Muslims praying in the street because their mosques are too small, the term “laicite” is clearly code for the problems France has adjusting to its 5-million strong Muslim minority.
Most Muslims here speak French, pay their taxes and obey the law. Many were born here and want to be treated like any other French citizen. But populist leaders have made some points linked to their faith into potent campaign issues.
Centrist Francois Bayrou, whose MoDem party is not in the Sarkozy government, accused the ruling party Thursday of cultivating “an anti-Muslim obsession” as a campaign strategy.
“Everybody is obsessed with the National Front’s rise and thinks they can win some extremist voters by using its issues,” he said. “But the opposite will happen if they continue this.”
The debate has alienated many Muslims, even such moderate figures as Grand Mosque of Paris Rector Dalil Boubakeur, who announced Wednesday he would not take part in a public debate on secularism that the UMP plans to hold on April 5.
He said the debate about Islam “has greatly upset and worried Muslims who feel stigmatised because of their faith.”
The debate has carved deep rifts in the UMP leadership, even pitting Prime Minister Francois Fillon against Sarkozy and the UMP secretary general Jean-Francois Cope.
Sarkozy and Cope gave no guidelines for UMP supporters in districts where the Socialist and National Front candidates made it into the second round of local council polls. This amounts to a wink and a nod to vote National Front if they want.
Harking back to the earlier Gaullist strategy of rigorously shunning the National Front, Fillon said UMP supporters should back the Socialist candidate in such a case.
“The Sarkozy camp is trying to pretend this is a debate about nuances and semantics,” said political analyst Stephane Rozes, but the UMP splits showed many saw it as a deeper moral question of whether to align the party with the far-right.
The debate has also sown confusion on the left because of a petition against the Islam debate launched by Respect Mag, a magazine that aims to promote intercultural understanding.
The UMP rounded on opposition Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry and former Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius for supporting the text when it emerged that Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born Muslim activist, had also signed it.
Both quickly withdrew their support because of Ramadan, who is vilified here as a covert Islamist out to subvert France.
“If these two (parties) had wanted to agree to open the door wide to Marine Le Pen, they would not have done anything differently,” said Ramadan, a professor of Islamic studies at Britain’s Oxford University.
Additional reporting by Sophie Louet; Editing by Jon Boyle