• "We have been too busy with the identity of those who arrived and not enough with the identity of the country that accepted them." - Nicolas Sarkozy

With just ten weeks to go until the first round of presidential elections in France, Islam and the question of Muslim immigration has become a central issue in the campaign.

France, home to between five and six million Muslims, has the largest Muslim population in the European Union; polls show that millions of French voters are worried about the proliferation in France of "separate Islamic societies" that are ruled by Islamic Sharia law.

Responding to these concerns, French President Nicolas Sarkozy outlined an important part of his re-election platform -- imposing restrictions on Muslim immigration -- during a February 10 interview in the weekend magazine supplement of the pro-government newspaper, Le Figaro.

Sarkozy rejected calls by his Socialist rival, François Hollande, to offer an amnesty to all of the estimated 350,000 illegal Muslim immigrants currently in France. Sarkozy said: "I say very clearly that, unlike Mr. Hollande, I am not in favor of regularizing the status of illegal immigrants, which would immediately create fresh demand."

Sarkozy also spoke out against Hollande's plan to allow Muslim immigrants to vote in local elections. "This is not the time," he said, "considering all the risks associated with the rise of multiculturalism."

In an effort to fight back against skyrocketing social security fraud, Sarkozy said he would make i harder for a foreign-born spouse to obtain French nationality by marrying a French citizen.

Sarkozy also promised a constitutional change to make it easier to expel illegal immigrants and failed asylum-seekers, and he called for stricter surveillance of legally resident foreigners.

Just a week earlier, French Interior Minister Claude Guéant, in a clear reference to the Muslim world, said that not all civilizations are equal.

"Contrary to what the left's relativist ideology says, for us all civilizations are not of equal value," Guéant told the conservative student association UNI on February 4. "Those which defend humanity seem to us to be more advanced than those that do not. Those which defend liberty, equality and fraternity, seem to us superior to those which accept tyranny, the subservience of women, social and ethnic hatred."

Guéant also stressed the need to "protect our civilization."

The comments sparked a predictable uproar, with critics denouncing his comments as dangerous and xenophobic. But when journalists asked Sarkozy to distance himself from Guéant, Sarkozy brushed aside their objections as a "ridiculous argument."

"The interior minister said that a civilization that does not accord the same place and rights to men and to women does not have the same value. It is common sense and I don't want to argue about it," Sarkozy remarked in an interview with France 2 television.

The latest IFOP poll dated February 9 shows Hollande leading Sarkozy, 31% to 24.5%. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front party, is polling at 19.5%.

It still ,remains to be seen however, whether Le Pen will get her name on the ballot. All French candidates must secure the signed endorsement of 500 elected local officials before they can be put on the ballot. Le Pen has so far been able to gather only 350 names, largely because of the perceived political risk of being associated with her populist campaign. She has until March 16 to collect the remaining signatures.

The IFOP poll forecasts that if Le Pen cannot run, Sarkozy would come in with roughly one-third of the vote in the first round, equal to Hollande. But Sarkozy would probably still lose the run-off vote to Hollande.

Not surprisingly, Sarkozy has been reaching out to Le Pen's supporters, signaling that he shares many of their concerns about Islam and Muslim immigration.

In January 2012, for example, the Sarkozy government implemented a new law that makes it harder for Muslim immigrants to obtain French citizenship. As of January 1, foreigners seeking French nationality will be tested on French culture and history, and will have to prove that their French language skills are equivalent to those of a 15-year-old mother-tongue speaker. They will also be required to sign a new charter establishing their rights and responsibilities.

In September 2011, the French government enacted a new law prohibiting Muslims from praying in the streets. The ban was Sarkozy's response to growing public anger over the growing phenomenon of Muslim street prayers, in which thousands of Muslims from Paris to Marseille and elsewhere closed off streets and sidewalks, thereby shutting down local businesses and trapping non-Muslim residents in their homes and offices, to accommodate overflowing crowds for Friday prayers.

The weekly spectacles provoked a mixture of anger, frustration and disbelief, but despite public complaints, local authorities had declined to intervene, largely out of fear of sparking riots.

The issue of illegal street prayers was catapulted to the top of the French national political agenda in December 2010, when Le Pen denounced them as an "occupation without tanks or soldiers."

Sarkozy said the street cannot be allowed to become "an extension of the mosque," and warned that the overflow of Muslim faithful onto the streets at prayer time when mosques are packed to capacity risks undermining the French secular tradition separating state and religion.

Guéant told Le Figaro that Muslims who continue to pray in the street will be arrested: "My vigilance will be unflinching for the law to be applied. Praying in the street is not dignified for religious practice and violates the principles of secularism. If anyone happens to be recalcitrant we will put an end to it."

In June 2011, the French government refused to give French nationality to an Algerian-born man living in France because of his "degrading attitude" towards women. The man is married to a Frenchwoman but he does not allow her to leave the family home.

In a legal precedent, his application for French nationality was turned down because "his idea of sexual equality is not compatible with that of the French Republic," according to a government official quoted by the French radio station Europe 1.

The French constitution states that the government can refuse nationality or strip nationality for a "failure to integrate." Guéant said he expects candidates for French nationality to not only integrate but to "assimilate" into French society.

In April 2011, France's much-debated "burqa ban" took effect. The new law prohibits the wearing of Islamic body-covering burqas and face-covering niqabs in all public spaces in France.

Also in April, Sarkozy's center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party held a controversial debate on the compatibility of Islam with the rules of the secular French Republic. The three-hour roundtable discussion, the title of which was altered to remove any reference to Islam, resulting in the anodyne "Secularism: To Live Better Together," was held at the upscale hotel Pullman Paris Montparnasse in the presence of 500 religious leaders, legislators and journalists.

In February 2011, Sarkozy denounced multiculturalism as a failure and said Muslims must assimilate into the French culture if they want to be welcomed in France. In a live-broadcast interview with French Channel One television, Sarkozy said: "I do not want a society where communities coexist side by side … France will not welcome people who do not agree to melt into a single community. We have been too busy with the identity of those who arrived and not enough with the identity of the country that accepted them."

The first round of France's presidential election will be held on April 22; the second-round run-off vote is scheduled for May 6.

Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.

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