President Nicolas Sarkozy's governing conservative party held a politically charged conference Tuesday on ways to strengthen secularism in French society, amid worries it would stigmatize France's millions of Muslims.
The UMP were considering 26 ideas that party officials say are aimed at bringing France's stringent laws decreeing the separation of church from state into step with the times. With Europe's largest Muslim population _ estimated at about 5 million _ France is much changed from 1905, when the secularism laws were adopted, and they're in urgent need of revamping, the party argues.
The proposals discussed Tuesday include banning the wearing of religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves or prominent Christian crosses by day-care personnel and preventing Muslim mothers from wearing headscarves when accompanying school field trips. It also would prevent parents from taking their children out of mandatory subjects including gym and biology.
The debate could lead to a legislative bill in the National Assembly, where the UMP has a majority.
The round-table comes about a week before a new law banning garments that hide the face takes effect. Under the measure, which takes effect on April 11, women who wear the face-shrouding veils risk a fine, special classes and a police record.
The discussion also comes as Sarkozy's poll numbers continue to slide and with the far-right National Front resurgent under its new party leadership. Critics from the opposition Socialist party contend the debate is an electoral ploy aimed at appealing to voters who could be swayed by the National Front.
UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope insisted Monday that France needs clearer rules about how Muslims should adapt their religious practices to French society.
"The practice of Islam in France is not the burqa. It is not prayers in the street," he said. In some neighborhoods with large Muslim immigrant communities, the lack of mosques or prayer rooms means crowds gather on sidewalks and cobblestone streets at prayer times.
Cope tried to distance himself from the National Front. "They denounce (Muslim practices). We are making proposals" to ease social tensions, he said.
The leaders of France's main religions have expressed concern about the debate, saying it's not the right forum for such a discussion. Several religious figures took part, however, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
"We were not for this debate in the format that was presented," France's chief rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, told reporters. France also has western Europe's largest Jewish population.
Singh Ranjit, of the group Sikhs of France, said, "This concerns all of us because we all have difficulties as religious minorities when it comes to the relationship we have with the authorities."
The debate has also taken on an international dimension.
A former foreign minister of the Comoros Islands, a largely Muslim nation in the Indian Ocean, said on the debate's sidelines that France's influence goes beyond its geographical limits.
"Unfortunately because of what they call quarrels within France, people don't measure the impact that France has all over the world."
On the eve of the rountable, Interior Minister Claude Gueant tried to make a case for the need for the meeting _ but appeared to have further angered many.
"This growth in the number of (Muslims) and a certain number of behaviors cause problems," he said in remarks carried on French radio on Monday. "There is no reason why the nation should accord to one particular religion more rights than religions that were formerly anchored in our country."
The Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Among Peoples said Tuesday that it would file a legal complaint, accusing Gueant of "Islamophobic statements."
Gueant's predecessor, Brice Hortefeux, was convicted of racism based on a complaint by the same anti-racism group over comments regarding a UMP member of North African descent. He has appealed the conviction and the higher court has yet to rule on the appeal.
In France, the interior minister is primarily in charge of police and public security but is also oversees religious affairs.
Cecile Brisson and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.