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Sarkozy's party stages much-hyped secularism debate

media French Interior Minister Claude Guéant AFP

A long-awaited debate on the state and religion by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party takes place Tuesday. But it is a scaled-down version, with only a dozen ministers expected to attend, and it has been dogged by accusations of Islamophobia.

Interior minister Claude Guéant courted controversy again the day before the debate by declaring that the growth of Islam in France “posed a problem”.

France’s founding law on secularism was passed in 1905, before the major immigration from former French colonies in north Africa of the late 20th century.

Guéant, Education Minister Luc Chatel and Budget Minister François Baroin are three of about 10 ministers who will take part in the discussion on issues ranging from the training of imams, ritual slaughter and secularism in state schools.

No Muslim leaders will take part and some Muslim UMP members stormed out of the party because of the plan. Nor will Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, who does not approve of the debate. But UMP chief Jean-Francois Copé has been pushing hard for it

The left has denounced the debate as a political ploy to woo far-right Front National supporters.

The French Muslim council decided to boycott it, saying that it picks on Muslims. But it is sending observers – as is the Catholic church. France’s main rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, said he will participate.

The 1905 law guaranteeing the separation of state and religion is not up for discussion.

But Guéant is to present 26 proposals, many of which could be put in place right away – including some on the controversial issue of Muslims praying in the streets, which Front National leader Marine Le Pen last year compared to the German occupation.

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