Islam emerges as divisive issue in French local polls campaign

March 25, 2011

(Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant National Front leader whose success has prompted President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party to veer to the right before a local elections runoff on Sunday, photographed after voting in the first round on March 20, 2011/Pascal Rossignol )

Islam has emerged as a central issue in the campaign for French local elections on 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 Marine Le Pen’s National Front, the once-shunned anti-immigrant party that recently overtook him in opinion polls. Interior Minister Claude Guéant, 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,” Guéant 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.

Both the centre-right government and Le Pen declare their aim is to defend laïcité — 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 laïcité is clearly code for the problems France has adjusting to its 5-million strong Muslim minority.

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