MARSEILLES // The French president Nicolas Sarkozy's judgment and credibility have been called into renewed question amid growing opposition to his planned debate on the role of Islam in France.
With his battle for a second term at the Elysee now only a year away, Mr Sarkozy faces serious disquiet in his own party, the ruling centre-right UMP, about the initiative.
The anti-immigration far right is threatening to profit from the rift.
The debate is due to begin on April 5, just eight days before a new law banning the wearing of face-covering veils in public takes effect.
Both the choice of subject and strength of feeling the planned discussion has provoked reflect France's lingering failure to assimilate Muslims, unofficially numbered at between five million and seven million.
The immigrants, originating mainly from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, and their French-born descendants have built a parallel society, which in turn fuels the suspicion of some conservative voters.
Mr Sarkozy is eager to counter the electoral appeal of the far-right Front National to those troubled by images of Muslims assembled in large numbers for prayer in French streets and the proliferation of halal fast-food restaurants.
Yet the party claims his policy, by emphasising the public unease, is playing straight into its hands.
Marine Le Pen, who has succeeded her father, Jean-Marie, as leader of the Front National, is now building towards what some observers say could be a presidential challenge strong enough to worry the mainstream parties.
One poll at the weekend put her in first position, with 25 per cent, Mr Sarkozy and the socialist leader Martine Aubry lagging two points behind. Although it is too early to read much into such soundings of public opinion, there is a precedent: Ms Le Pen's father won through to the second round in 2002, when he was trounced by Jacques Chirac, Mr Sarkozy's centre-right predecessor.
On Friday, a UMP heavy gun was wheeled into action in an attempt to calm party elements who consider the proposed debate a grave error.
Jean-Francois Copé, the UMP's secretary general, insisted that the discussion would focus on France's secular traditions, a law dating from 1905 that separates church and state and bans the use of public money for religious purposes, and had "never been a debate about Islam".
He told the newspaper Le Figaro the interpretation placed on the debate was absurd.
But the newspaper felt obliged to suggest he clearly had Islam in mind. It pointed out that he had gone on to say that since the French Muslim community developed long after the 1905 law was passed, it was legitimate to require its organisation to be wedded to the principles of the secular republic.
As a measure of the dismay felt within the party, Mr Sarkozy's prime minister, François Fillon, said on RTL radio: "If this debate were to be focused only on Islam, if it were to lead to a stigmatisation of Muslims, then I would oppose it."
However, the president would argue that he proposes nothing of the sort. Indeed, in 2004 Mr Sarkozy presented himself as a champion of reforming the 1905 law.
Mr Sarkozy, then finance minister, argued in a book titled The Republic, Religions, Hope that France should consider relaxing the law on funding so that a mosque could be provided in every sizeable town.
This, he felt, would help counter the risk of young French Muslims being indoctrinated by self-styled, untrained imams in makeshift prayer rooms.
But his remarks drew sharp criticism then and his more recent track record is blurred. A three-month public debate on national identity, between the end of 2009 and early last year, also divided the country.
The industry minister, Eric Besson, born in Morocco of French and Lebanese parent, is among traditionalists who insist that the 1905 legislation is a sacred element of republican values. The government spokesman, François Baroin, has said tampering with it would "open Pandora's box".
Rachida Dati, a former justice minister and still prominent in the UMP as a mayor and member of the European parliament, has warned that if the debate goes ahead, care should be taken on its conduct.
Ms Dati, the product of Moroccan and Algerian parents, said on French state-run television that the problem was not Islam but "those who abuse Islam, who use it to challenge the values of the republic".
She added: "Be careful not to condemn or caricature some of our countrymen to arouse fear in others."
Ms Le Pen says the debate cannot come soon enough for her Front National. "Come on, Mr Copé, let's have more effort, a little debate and blah-blah about Islam and secularism," she said in a radio interview.
When regional elections were held last year in the aftermath of the national identity debate, which was also seen as having more to do with France's relations with Muslims than anything else, the Front National won 15 per cent of the vote.
For Ms Le Pen, a heated discussion on Islam now could leave an even more marked effect. A 25 per cent vote for her party in the 2012 presidential race, which she claims is possible, would threaten the elimination of one of the main contenders - the socialist candidate or, if he remains unpopular generally, Mr Sarkozy - in the first round.