French president Nicolas Sarkozy, seeking support from the far right as he fights an uphill battle for a second term, said today that his country has too many immigrants and is failing to integrate them.
With all polls pointing to a victory in Sunday’s presidential run-off election for Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, conservative Mr Sarkozy is hoping to win over the more than six million voters who supported far right leader Marine Le Pen in the first round.
Ms Le Pen was leading her anti-immigrant National Front’s traditional May 1 march in Paris today, and promised to announce how she wants her voters to cast their ballots for the run-off.
Mr Sarkozy was holding a campaign rally of his own where he was expected to reach out to the far right.
In a radio interview today, he was asked if France has too many immigrants, and answered: “Yes.
“Our system of integration doesn’t work. Why? Because before we were able to integrate those who were received on our territory, others arrived. Having taken in too many people, we paralysed our system of integration.
“I will never argue for zero immigration, but the reality is that when you invite more people than you can handle, you no longer integrate them.”
While Mr Sarkozy has flattered Ms Le Pen by borrowing some of her rhetoric on immigrants and Muslims, she says the current president is already a has-been.
She appears to be hoping that Mr Hollande wins and she can then emerge as the face of the political opposition. Her deputy has said he will cast a blank ballot out of protest.
In response, a new effort is being made to mobilise French Muslims to vote.
Imams and Islamic associations are calling on Muslims to do their duty as citizens and go to the polls.
And while they are not officially endorsing anyone, the call is a bold move in a country where statistics on religious affiliation are formally banned and where secularism is enshrined in the constitution.
Mr Hollande is more likely to benefit from the get-out-the-vote push, because Mr Sarkozy has spoken out against Muslim practices in his campaign and experts say that Muslims in poor neighbourhoods and Muslim youth tend to vote for the left.
But the Muslim vote is diverse, and there is no guarantee that the push will bring out voters, since Muslims have tended in the past to avoid politics.
French Muslims have blamed throughout the campaign for what they eat (halal meat), how they pray (in the street), and for allegedly using their growing numbers to supplant France’s civilisation with their own.
The massacre of Jewish schoolchildren and French paratroopers by an alleged Islamic extremist in March put Muslims in the spotlight again and fed far-right fear-mongering.
Ms Le Pen ran an anti-immigration and anti-Europe campaign and sowed fears that France is being Islamicised. She came a strong third in the April 22 first-round vote.
Although she was eliminated, her 18% score was a historic high for her National Front party. For some Muslim religious leaders, it is time to act.
The more than five million Muslims in France – the largest such population in western Europe – could potentially prove a decisive weight for or against a candidate.
Secularism expert Jean Bauberot said: “In the current atmosphere, Nicolas Sarkozy is doing all he can to alienate the Muslim electorate.
“When they (imams) say go out and vote, people think ... you shouldn’t vote for Sarkozy.”
Mr Sarkozy has walked both sides of the line in addressing Muslims.
While campaigning, he has spoken out against Muslim prayers in the street, the multiplication of halal butchers and the immigrant flux, in France seen as mainly Muslim.
But he embraced the Muslim population at the start of his term in 2007, appointing two ministers of Muslim North African origin and working for an Islam of France.