(photo credit: AP)
Presidential front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy appealed for brotherhood in multicultural France while keeping alive his proposal for a ministry to guard the national identity - and conceding he was fishing for far-rght votes.
Less than two weeks after proposing to create a ministry of immigration and national identity, Sarkozy, a conservative, sought to win over youth. Evoking US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a dream" speech in an address Sunday to a crowd of some 8,000 young people from his governing party, the Union for a Popular Movement, he asked them to dream of "fraternity" in France.
"I dream that one day all the children whose families have been French for generations ... all the children of immigrants, all the grandchildren of Italians, Portuguese and Spanish Republicans, all Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim children can sit together at the table of French fraternity," Sarkozy said.
The word "fraternity" is part of the French national motto, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," born out of the French Revolution.
However, Sarkozy, France's tough interior minister, has waded into sensitive questions around immigration, a theme usually dominated by Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right National Front, and has brought them into the presidential debate. Ten days ago, he proposed creating a ministry of immigration and national identity.
Denouncing the proposal has become a rare point of agreement among other candidates of all political stripes.
Socialist candidate Segolene Royal, Sarkozy's main rival, on Saturday said it was "intolerable that one can think that normal immigration is a risk for the national identity."
The current No. 3 candidate, Francois Bayrou, who occupies the political middle ground, has also denounced the proposal.
But in a rare show of frankness, Sarkozy conceded Sunday night on France 3 television that "bringing back to the camp of the republic voters who have gone to the National Front is also my job."
In each presidential election, mainstream candidates make efforts to seduce extreme-right voters. However, the stunning performance of Le Pen in the 2002 presidential vote, when he reached the runoff to face incumbent President Jacques Chirac, has made the subject particularly sensitive in the current election. Le Pen, who blames immigration for all French ills, suffered a massive defeat in a rare show of left-right unity in the second round.
At least 11 candidates will vie in the April 22 first round of the election. The number who have met the qualification criteria is to be made official Monday. The runoff will be held May 6.
"I'm not afraid to defend the identity of France, of the Republic, of the nation," Sarkozy said Sunday.
The interior minister, expected to resign from his government post by the end of March, lags some 12 points behind Royal among youths aged 18 to 21, according to a study by Cevipof, a think tank of the Institute for Political Science.
Sarkozy's image is tattered in the housing projects of France after calling some delinquent youths "scum," a remark that many contend fanned 2005 riots in the poor, suburban neighborhoods, mainly home to immigrants and French of immigrant origin.
The proposal for a ministry of national identity distanced Sarkozy from some within his own political family, including Equal Rights Minister Azouz Begag, of Algerian descent, and, notably, the respected former Health Minister Simone Veil. She had recently decided to support Sarkozy's presidential bid, but publicly regretted that the candidate had mixed immigration issues with national identity.
However, Sarkozy held firm Sunday.
"If we don't talk about France how can we be surprised that what separates us ends up being bigger than what unites us," he said, "that those who join us cannot manage to integrate into a country that no longer takes the time to talk to them."
Youth at the rally defended Sarkozy's ideas.
"We're here to support him," said 16-year-old Timothee Mali. "He dares to say things that others only think."
Meanwhile, Royal, the Socialist candidate, ended a rally of party faithful Sunday to the tune of the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise" - a first for her.