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PM, party officials boycott Sarkozy's Islam debate

France’s ruling UMP party met Tuesday for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s debate on strengthening secularism amid religious diversity. The prime minister and other top politicians refused to take part, however, saying the debate could stigmatise Islam.


France’s UMP party gathered at the Meridien hotel in drab south-central Paris Tuesday, with a list of 26 ideas supposed to strengthen the country’s secular standing.

While the controversial debate was attended by a gaggle of journalists and guarded by a heavy police presence, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s prime minister was nowhere to be seen. 
Prime Minister François Fillon, along with a number of ministers and top aides to Sarkozy, chose not to participate in the convention because of concerns over the

stigmatisation of Islam.

It’s an issue that has caused the biggest rupture in the UMP since Sarkozy began his reign four years ago.
On the opposite side of the Fillon camp, Sarkozy is joined by his party president, Jean-François Copé – the man who engineered the country’s ban on the full-face veil. He argues that by tackling the Islam question, the UMP will satisfy the concerns of right-wing voters – in time for next year’s presidential election. 
Fillon, on the other hand, says that the party must remember that its values “are not those of the far-right,” and that such a convention “is not the right place to express the government's position.”
Clutching at straws
The UMP is suffering its lowest ever ratings, with predictions for the 2012 election placing Sarkozy behind both the socialist candidate (yet to be decided) and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (FN).  
“From Sarkozy’s point of view, he probably thinks things can’t get any worse,” social and political researcher on France, Matthew Moran from King’s College London told FRANCE 24. “It’s likely he’s hoping that appealing to far-right voters will give him the boost he needs”. 
Rebellious ministers are not helping his case, however. “Sarkozy is known for his very autocratic way of dealing with his government,” Moran says. “The label of ‘hyper-president’ is important because it describes very well Sarkozy’s omnipresence in all aspects of government, to the point of eclipsing his ministers."
Sarkozy is widely expected to run for president in 2012, and the opposition are hoping that the UMP’s ongoing squabble will damage him. “Not necessarily,” says Moran. “Sarkozy is very good at creating a whirlwind of activity around him, so that before voters have properly reacted to an issue he’s already moved on to something else.
"If the debate on secularism goes badly, Sarkozy is shrewd enough to move onto another battleground very quickly. This issue, by itself, will not be fatal."
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