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French presidential front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy has backed off his push to modify French law to allow state support for mosques, but said in an interview released Tuesday he wants to keep France's Islam "cut off from foreign influences."
Sarkozy, of Jacques Chirac's ruling conservative party, has upset many in fiercely secular France by questioning the 1905 law separating church and state. He suggested it be modified to allow public financing of places of worship, specifically mosques, to better integrate largely Catholic France's estimated 5 million Muslims.
But in an interview in the Catholic daily La Croix, Sarkozy said the law was too much of a "monument" to change hastily.
"I'll pursue discussions with all religions," he said. "Before touching (the law), one must be very careful."
Still, he said he still wants to "cut off France's Islam from foreign influence, whether it is financing of places of worship or training of imams."
While many of France's Catholic churches stand nearly empty on Sundays, Muslims often carry out religious observances in basements of housing projects or on pavements outside cramped mosques.
In a 2005 book, Sarkozy said extremism is festering in underground mosques and Islamic groups do not have money to build houses of worship. While stopping short of calling for direct state funding for building mosques, Sarkozy has called for government support for the construction of parking lots, cultural centers and annexes to Muslim prayer halls as a way to encourage the building of more mosques.
France's relations with its Muslims - particularly those in poor immigrant communities like those that exploded in riots in 2005 - are a sensitive and key issue in the campaign for elections starting April 22. Polls show Sarkozy in the lead of the close and volatile race.