France’s ruling conservative party held a controversial debate on the practice of Islam on Tuesday, rejecting charges of bigotry and saying that airing the issue could help stem the rising popularity of the far-right. President Nicolas Sarkozy called for the discussion on Islam and secularism to address fears that some overt displays of Muslim faith, including street prayer and full-face veils, were undermining France’s secular identity.
With his popularity at record lows a year before a presidential election, Sarkozy has been accused of seeking to woo back right-wing voters increasingly drawn to the National Front party under its telegenic new leader Marine Le Pen. Even before it began, the debate had been tarnished by criticism from religious leaders, a boycott by France’s largest Muslim group and the absence of Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
“Everything possible has been done to stop this meeting taking place…but we have not yielded to those pressures… because it is the French people who are calling for it,” said Jean-François Copé, secretary-general of Sarkozy’s UMP party. “One less problem is one less electoral argument for Marine Le Pen,” he said.
The talks included ministers, French Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim and representatives of other faiths, but no Muslim clerics. “We did not ask for this debate,” Bernheim said. “But there was no question for us of boycotting it and stigmatising a political party, even if it is a ruling party.”