MARSEILLE, FRANCE // President Nicolas Sarkozy has been accused of exploiting public fears about Islamist violence in France by ordering a wave of arrests of suspected radicals across the country in a desperate electoral ploy.
Facing an uphill battle to avoid coming second in the first round of presidential elections two weeks from this Sunday, and humiliation in the May 6 decider, Mr Sarkozy has attracted strong criticism from rivals for the crackdown on alleged extremists.
The operations were signalled by the president in the immediate aftermath of a series of shootings carried out by a self-styled Al Qaeda activist in and near the southern city of Toulouse.
And today, the country's biggest annual gathering of French Muslims begins on the outskirts of Paris with what one hostile newspaper called a "virulent" and highly politicised message from the president ringing in delegates' ears.
Mr Sarkozy said in a letter to Ahmed Jaballah, president of the Union of Islamic Organisations (UOIF), he would not tolerate support being expressed at a public meeting on French soil for "violence, hatred [and] anti-Semitism, which constitute unbearable attacks that run counter to human dignity and republican principles".
The left-of-centre daily newspaper Libération, no friend of Mr Sarkozy's, offered its judgement of the letter's contents in five pages of coverage of rising tensions and political manoeuvring headed "Sarkozy and Islam: dangerous liaisons."
The government had previously announced it would refuse entry to France for the Egyptian theologian Yousef Al Qaradawi, who was due to address the UOIF conference at Le Bourget.
Libération also described as "opportune" the arrests of suspected Islamists that have occurred since Mr Sarkozy threatened to confront extremism following the killing spree in Toulouse and Montauban attributed to a young French-Algerian, Mohamed Merah, and his own death at the hands of the special French police unit, Raid.
Ten people were held on Wednesday, in France's second city, Marseille, along with Roubaix, Pau and Valence among smaller towns. The president had said after the first raids last Friday that similar security action would take place in the coming weeks to "ensure the protection of French people".
The arrests were aimed at young men accused of using Islamist websites, advocating violence or thought to be planning to visit Pakistan and Afghanistan for training as "jihadists", rendering them threats to French national interests.
In the first operation, police recovered weapons from some of the addresses and detained a number of people suspected of links with the radical group, Forsane Alizza (Knights of Pride).
Thirteen of those detained now face preliminary charges of conspiring with others to commit crimes of a "terrorist" nature. Nine of them are held in custody. Prosecutors have specified one alleged plot to kidnap a Jewish investigating magistrate in Lyon, though this does not feature in any of the formal accusations. In a separate development; two alleged radicals, including an imam, have been expelled from France this week.
François Bayrou; a centrist candidate in the elections, raised particular concerns about the orchestrated publicity surrounding the raids, with cameramen and photographers on hand to record the dramatic events.
"When the state takes responsibility for controlling or forbidding meetings or groups that arouse suspicion, that is good," he said. "When it happens in front of invited journalists and cameras, I find it more astonishing."
The far-right Front National (FN) party of Marine le Pen, never slow to attack what it sees at the "Islamification" of France, nevertheless attributed cynical motives to operations openly identified with Mr Sarkozy and his hardline interior minister, Claude Guéant. The party drew comparisons with the mass expulsions of Roma, travelling people originating mainly in Romania and neighbouring countries, two years ago.
"Until its last day, the Sarkozy mandate [his five-year term now ending] is one of electoral gesticulation," said Florian Philippot, the FN director of campaign strategy, claiming that such high-profile gestures actually changed nothing. The FN argues that the Sarkozy presidency has failed to live up to promises to cut immigration.
François Hollande, the socialist candidate widely expected to become France's next president, was careful not to appear opposed to security measures but asked whether more "could and should have been done beforehand".
A direct connection between the police operations and Merah's allegedly self-confessed killing of three soldiers, three Jewish children and a teacher in Toulouse and Montauban has been ruled out, though the arrests occurred against the background of higher security awareness that now applies.
In fact, French Muslim leaders have been at pains to condemn the murders in south-western France and reject confusion between the acts of isolated extremists and Islam. They stress the peaceful, law-abiding lives led by the vast majority of France's Muslim community, Europe's largest and estimated at between five and seven million.
With additional reporting by Associated Press