French far-right sees boost from planned Islam debate

February 18, 2011
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(Marine Le Pen at a National Front congress in Tours January 16, 2011/Stephane Mahe)

France’s far-right National Front said on Friday that a planned national debate on Islam and secularism would boost its support and improve its chances in the presidential election next year. Party leader Marine Le Pen, who took over last month from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, mocked the planned debate as a new opinion poll showed she could score a strong 20 percent in the first round of the presidential vote.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government wants the debate, due in April, to discuss whether France’s five-million-strong Muslim minority supports the official separation of church and state.

Le Pen said it could end up backfiring on Sarkozy and his ally Jean-Francois Cope, the UMP party leader who announced on Wednesday that the debate would start in April.

“The last time (Sarkozy) used that, there was a debate about national identity and the National Front scored 15 percent in the regional elections,” she told France Info radio (with link to audio in French).

“So keep it up, Mr Cope — a little debate here, a little blah-blah about Islam and secularism there, and I think we’ll end up winning 25 percent in the presidential election.”

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(Marine Le Pen at a National Front congress in Tours January 16, 2011/Stephane Mahe)

Critics said Sarkozy’s government-sponsored debate on national identity in 2009-2010, which led to a ban on full face veils in public, turned into a public forum to air complaints about Muslims and make the minority feel stigmatised.

Defence Minister Alain Juppe, a senior Sarkozy ally, also warned about a debate. “We have to steer and master this debate, because it can get out of hand,” he told the daily Le Figaro.

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