Nicolas Sarkozy cunnningly continued to seduce France’s far-right voters on Tuesday by announcing that the country has too many immigrants, and that the system of cultural integration has become “paralysed” and ineffective.

The president stated on France 2 that, if re-elected in May, he would cut the number of immigrants from 180,000 to 100,000 per year.

He also said that he would limit access to benefits for foreigners, who (those who reside legally in France) currently enjoy the same rights as the native French.

Sarkozy announced that he would make welfare benefits available only to those immigrants who have been resident in France for ten years and who have worked for five of those years.

The president’s comments came at a time when the election campaigns have become caught up on issues of religion and national identity, and when Islamic and Jewish dietry practices have been the subject of a recent national debate which upset religious leaders.

The halal debate was started last month when Marine Le Pen (presidential candidate for the far-right party Le Font National) announced that all the abbatoirs in the Ile-de-France region were slaughtering their animals in accordance with the Islamic halal tradition. She also called it a scandal that non-Muslim consumers in Paris were being misled about the provenance of their meat.

It was later discovered the abattoirs in question were mostly suppliers for local Muslim butchers and that most meat sold in Paris came from other regions.

Jews and Muslims united on Tuesday to complain that they were being used as pawns in the election campaigns, after first Le Pen then Sarkozy and finally prime minister Francois Fillon criticised the production of halal and kosher meat.

The Grand Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, asked exasperatedly how the issue of kosher and halal meat could possibly be a major problem for France, particularly in a time of crisis, with so many other pressing problems.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith denounced the use of Muslims as “scapegoats” in the electoral campaigns in which halal slaughter has become a major issue.

To provoke these strong reactions from the religious leaders, Fillon had urged Muslims and Jews to consider scrapping “outdated” slaughter rules. The irony of his words was striking in a society that prides itself on its laicite – its secularism – the separation of religion and state. Under this arrangement, religion has no influence on the state, and the state no influence on religion. There have been no recent reports of religious officials advising the French government on how to run the country, but, it seems, the UMP (Sarkozy’s party) cannot resist advising the religions on how to best to alter their millenia-old, sacred traditions.

This being France, and this being a religious issue – and in particular one that concerns that most suspicious of religions, Islam – it couldn’t be dropped and, on Saturday, Sarkozy made the suggestion that meat should be labelled to inform consumers how the animal was slaughtered.

France has the largest Muslim ‘minority’ community in Europe (four million), and its largest Jewish community, (700,000).

The debate over how far France is willing to accommodate Islam, the country’s second religion, is a central issue to both Sarkozy’s and Le Pen’s presidential campaigns.

Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, however, who is currently ahead in the polls, said that he considered his rivals had taken the issue too far and suggested “restraint” was appropriate.

The first round of France’s presidential elections will take place on April 22, followed by the second round on May 6. Socialist Francois Hollande is currently excpected to win, according to the most recent polls.

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