The French president’s call, in a statement published by Le Monde newspaper, reflected concern that a government-sponsored debate on France’s “national identity,” seemed to be contributing to expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment and generating resentment among Muslim citizens and immigrants. “I will combat any form of discrimination,” Sarkozy said, but added he also wanted to tell Muslims “that in our country, where Christian civilization has left such a deep trace, where republican values are an integral part of our national identity, everything that could be taken as a challenge to this heritage and its values would condemn to failure the necessary inauguration of a French Islam.” Sarkozy said he understood the fears of many native French at the growing visibility of Muslims. France has Europe’s largest Muslim population, estimated at well over five million. That, he said, is what led him to propose the national-identity debate managed by Eric Besson, the minister of immigration, integration and national identity. “This muffled threat felt by so many people in our old European nations, rightly or wrongly, weighs on their identity,” Sarkozy added. “We must all speak about this together, out of fear that, if it is kept hidden, this sentiment could end up nourishing a terrible rancor.” Some political commentators see Sarkozy’s entry into the controversy against the background of regional assembly elections in March, in which the governing coalition is seeking to make inroads into provincial Socialist Party strongholds. The extreme-right National Front, which could drain votes from Sarkozy’s party, is openly calling for a Swiss-style decision to ban minarets, towers beside mosques from which Muslims are called to prayer.
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