French President Nicolas Sarkozy, struggling in the opinion polls, threatens to tighten rules governing immigrants' access to nationality and social security benefits.
Sarkozy: There are too many foreigners in France
MARSEILLE // Nicolas Sarkozy has intensified his strategy of courting France's anti-immigration extreme right by saying there are now too many foreigners in the country he wishes to rule as president for a second term.
Mr Sarkozy, struggling in the opinion polls as he seeks to repeat his victory of 2007, threatens to tighten rules governing immigrants' access to French nationality and social security benefits.
In a bad-tempered television debate with rivals, the president said he would cut the number of immigrants from 180,000 a year to 100,000.
Although this reflected campaign pledges, he went further, saying: "Our system of integration is working more and more badly, because we have too many foreigners on our territory and we can no longer manage to find them accommodation, a job, a school."
The promise to cut immigrant numbers, along with an unexpected reopening of a controversy on halal meat that he earlier dismissed as meaningless, deepens suspicion that Mr Sarkozy feels his only hope of victory lies in snatching votes from Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National (FN).
France has been agonising over how to integrate large numbers of immigrants - especially Muslims from its former colonies in Africa - for decades. This has led to community tension and a good deal of introspection on questions on national identity: many Muslims, born in France to Maghrebin parents, talk of feeling excluded from society.
One recent poll, by the CSA institute, gave Ms Le Pen - whose party is broadly seen as anti-Islam as well as nationalist - 15 per cent of voting intentions for the first round of the elections on April 22.
The socialist candidate, François Hollande remained the favourite with 30 per cent, two points ahead of Mr Sarkozy.
The importance of the Le Pen vote to Mr Sarkozy, who leads the centre-right UMP, becomes all the more obvious when pollsters ask what electors will do in the May 6 decider between the two strongest first-round contenders. If the findings repeated in successive polls are accurate, the far-right vote would not transfer sufficiently to Mr Sarkozy but - according to the CSA findings - leave the socialist a comfortable 56-44 winner.
Mr Sarkozy took every opportunity in Tuesday's three-hour debate, shown at peak time, to defend his record on tax reform, unemployment and public finances.
But he has shown signs of weakness, admitting once, in remarks intended to be off the record, but again yesterday, in a direct response to a television interviewer's question, that defeat is a possibility. In yesterday's interview, he said he would leave politics if the French electorate rejected him.
With aides quick to stress his belief that he will win, however, it is clear that Mr Sarkozy is determined to fight to the last.
The row over halal meat centred on suggestions, later shown to be false, that all meat distributed in Paris came from slaughterhouses observing Islamic tradition.
Ms Le Pen insisted first that all Parisians were eating halal meat without their knowledge, then that no one could be sure what they were consuming.
Having initially given the row short shrift, Mr Sarkozy changed tack, saying at the weekend that all meat should be sold with labels making clear how the animals were slaughtered. This was a classic Sarkozy response to an issue shown, despite his more restrained initial assessment, to be troubling public opinion.
Then, as leaders of both Muslims and Jews expressed dismay at the tone of the debate, a key Sarkozy ally, the interior minister Claude Guéant, said non-French Muslim residents given the vote in local elections - as proposed by Mr Hollande - could take over local councils and make halal meat compulsory in school canteens.
The socialists accused him of resorting to scare tactics but some of the president's supporters also found his polemic unwarranted. Mr Guéant previously caused a stir by suggesting that not all civilisations could be considered equal.
Not for the first time, the foreign minister, Alain Juppé, something of a calming voice for the centre-right, intervened: "I have already said the clash of civilisations is not my cup of tea. I think the halal meat problem is in reality a false problem."
Mohammed Moussaoui, who heads the main Muslim representative body in France, said exploiting halal meat as a campaign issue was a matter for concern because "it creates tensions in the society". The grand rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, said: "France's problems are so major, as we are in a period of crisis, so how can the issue of kosher meat and halal meat be a major problem?"
As a political leader who takes pride in his record as a statesmen, Mr Sarkozy has also been at pains to demonstrate his attention to important matters of state.
Overlooked in many reports of the marathon television debate, he said his first foreign visit if re-elected president would be to Germany, for talks with the chancellor, Angela Merkel, with whom he has battled to save the beleaguered euro zone from collapse. The next would take him to the Middle East to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders on peace prospects.