MARSEILLES // France's ruling centre-right party defied fierce criticism yesterday by holding a debate on secularism, widely seen as an attack on Islam, and proposing a raft of new regulations governing the practice of religion.
The event, once envisaged as a three-day conference, was squeezed into a three-hour "round-table" discussion in a Parisian hotel.
The prime minister, François Fillon, was pointedly absent after having said he opposed any such debate if it stigmatised France's large minority of Muslims.
Leaders of the governing UMP party, which staged the debate, denied that this was the intention but struggled to throw off suspicion that it was a ploy by the president Nicolas Sarkozy to lure voters away from the increasingly popular, anti-immigrant Front National (FN).
The atmosphere was darkened by eve-of-debate comments from Mr Sarkozy's close ally and interior minister, Claude Guéant.
He said the growth in the number of Muslims in France since a law of 1905 separating church and state, along with certain types of practices, "poses problems".
"It is clear that prayers in the street shock a certain number of people and the leaders of major religions know that this type of practice affects them negatively," he said during a visit to Nantes.
Mr Guéant had in mind such matters as Muslims praying in French city streets when mosques are full or unavailable, the serving of halal food in schools and the wearing of face-covering veils. France's so-called "burqa ban", which is thought to affect no more than 3,000 Muslim women who currently choose to cover their faces, takes legal effect next week.
Reaction from opposition politicians was predictably fierce.
The Green said it was part of "an Islamophobic campaign" by Mr Sarkozy in response to the threat from the FN ahead of next year's presidential elections.
Benoît Hamon, spokesman for the socialist party, said: "The right is not debating secularism, it's debating Islam … (Mr Guéant) dishonours France and the French."
Many of the 26 proposals put to the debate, all aimed at upholding France's attachment to the separation of church and state, would raise few eyebrows.
Potentially more controversial would be the call for a law forbidding people to refuse to deal with a public service employee on grounds of sex or religion.
Jean-François Copé, the UMP secretary general, said such a measure would clarify the legal position when women, "often under pressure from their husbands", refuse to be treated by a male doctor.
There were also proposals to stipulate that worship outdoors should be subject to prior declaration if they are not events that are traditional for worship, and to regularise more carefully the ritual slaughter of animals for food.
Mr Copé hopes parliament will adopt the proposals, which otherwise have no legal force. A UMP official said as the debate began that the idea was "to discuss, not to decide".
Yesterday's event had its origins in a call by Mr Sarkozy for a debate on secularism and religious services and the presence of Islam in France.
In all recent references, ministers and officials have been at pains to play down the emphasis on Islam. The controversy it has aroused is reminiscent of the criticism attracted by another government debate, on French national identity, earlier in Mr Sarkloy's presidency.
Although the UMP's debating agenda yesterday specifically ruled out tampering with the 1905 law, Mr Sarkozy himself has in the past argued for amendments or flexibility to allow state funding for a mosque in all towns where there is a need.
When he proposed such changes in a book published before he ran for the presidency, Mr Sarkozy's intention was to provide decent places of worship in areas where self-styled and often untrained religious leaders might otherwise preach anti-western hatred and rhetoric. His idea met with a hostile reception from colleagues on the centre-right and has been quietly dropped.
Instead of being seen as a champion of mutual respect and integration, the president is increasingly targeted by opponents as a desperate politician, conscious of public disdain and prepared to court those drawn to the FN of Marine le Pen.
In the build-up to the debate, the lobby group Banlieues Respect, representing the largely immigrant population of the city suburbs, distributed green stars to Muslims - an echo of the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear by the occupying Nazis - in protest at the event.
While the UMP representatives assembled for their discussion, a former leader of Banlieues Respect, Rachid Nekkaz, a French-Algerian businessman, was in a nearby hotel declaring his intention to seek the socialist party candidature for the 2012 election.
It was a purely symbolic gesture, since he has no chance of being chosen to challenge Mr Sarkozy.
But the French can expect to hear a lot more from him in the coming months since he has now raised more than Dh10 million in a fund to defend and pay the fines of any woman prosecuted for wearing a veil.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse