Paris: The issue of France`s Muslims moved front and center into the presidential campaign with the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, excluding on Saturday any special indulgences for halal meat or separate swimming hours for Muslim women in public pools.
Echoing his 2007 campaign, Sarkozy insisted that French civilization must prevail in France. He created France`s first Ministry of Immigration and National Identity after being elected, but has since done away with it.
Muslims, and immigration, are constant themes in recent French presidential races, but the topic is rising to the fore with vehemence as the April 22 first-round vote nears — 50 days from now. The final round is May 6.
Critics say Sarkozy is ogling supporters of extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who is third in polls after front-runner Francois Hollande, a Socialist, and the conservative president. Le Pen, who succeeds party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, her father, has worked to erase the image of the party as anti-Semitic — but now castigates what she says is the profile of Islam in France.
There are an estimated 5 million Muslims in France, the largest such population in Western Europe, and the latest generation is making increasing demands that the country accommodate needs set out by their religion or their customs.
"There is no place in the republic for xenophobia, there is no place for racism ... There is no place for pools with hours for men and hours for women," Sarkozy told a rally Saturday in Bordeaux.
The team of Hollande, the Socialist candidate, castigated as "sickening" a remark Friday by Interior Minister Claude Gueant, who said that giving foreigners the right to vote in local elections would open the way to halal meat in school canteens and burqa-style bathing suits in public pools.
Sarkozy makes "scapegoats, stigmatizes" Muslims, said Manuel Valls, communications chief for Hollande`s campaign.
Hollande has proposed allowing all foreigners residing in France legally for five years to have the right to vote in local elections. The Socialist candidate has made it a policy to avoid implicating himself directly in divisive issues, leaving responses to his lieutenants.
At a rally Saturday in Dijon, Hollande simply reiterated that foreigners should be allowed to vote "without fearing for our citizenship or our national cohesion or our freedom."
The French president, who declared his candidacy just weeks ago, on Feb. 15, is narrowing the gap with Hollande but, polls show, would lose by a wide margin in second-round balloting.
"There is no taboo subject," Sarkozy said, suggesting that it is not in the nation`s interest to be politically correct about immigration or about what some Muslims seek to conform to their religious beliefs or cultural mores.
He said issues like halal food in schools or special hours so that Muslim women can swim out of view of men are in contradiction with the French principle of secularism.
Such issues "should be considered not as religious facts, but as facts of civilization," he said.
Jerome Sainte-Marie of the CSA polling firm, monitoring the rally with BFM television, said that with Sarkozy`s showing in polls he must work the terrain where he does best.
"Nicolas Sarkozy has no other choice but to turn the tables and transform this election into a referendum on national identity," Sainte-Marie said.
But the spokesman for Le Pen`s campaign, Florian Philippot, counters that "the French are not for one second dupes of the electoral strings (being pulled) by the Sarkozy camp."