News Agencies – March 4, 2011

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to hold a national debate on the role of Islam in French society has opened a rare rift in his centre-right party, potentially damaging his credibility ahead of a presidential election. Fears about the role of Islam in France’s secular society have become a key campaign theme in the wake of controversies — largely fed by the far-right — over Muslims praying in the street, halal-only fast-food restaurants and full-face veils. With Sarkozy intent on keeping moderate voters from defecting to the far-right, he has encouraged the ruling UMP party to hold a public debate starting on April 5 to discuss the compatibility between Islam and France’s secular values.

But weeks before the debate has begun, and with little clue as to its format, dissent within the UMP over the wisdom of the idea has hurt Sarkozy’s credibility, hinting that his leadership of the party is less than ironclad. National Front leader Marine Le Pen has been gaining points in the polls for pounding home the idea that Islam has become an encroaching presence in French society. The only politician to welcome the idea was Le Pen, who mocked the UMP by saying that a debate on Islam would help her party to win 25 percent of the vote during the election.

One issue the UMP intends to address is public financing for mosques after the controversy over street prayers shone a light on the lack of suitable mosque space for Muslims in France. A 1905 law separating church and state forbids the use of taxpayer money to support any faith.

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