French Interior Minister Claude Guéant, on record as wanting to cut immigration to France and for blaming immigrants for rising crime rates, has created the first real skirmish in the French presidential election.

Speaking before students who back his Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) party, the minister, also responsible for the police, claimed that all civilizations were not equal. He spelled this out further in an interview with the pro-government Le Figaro, where he contrasted "a civilization that promotes democracy, that protects individual freedoms and collective, which promotes women's rights, and a civilization that accepts tyranny, which does not value the freedoms and that does not respect equality between men and women.”

The Socialists mistakenly took the bait, calling the remarks "dangerous", "racist" and "xenophobic." When French president Nicolas Sarkozy was questioned on the remark by a German television network, he replied sweetly, "The Minister of Interior has said that a civilization, a regime, a society that does not accord the same place and the same rights to both men and women does not have the same values. This is good sense."

The French Muslim Council fired off a letter to the minister, essentially asking him to state that he was not talking about Muslim civilization. Gueant was happy to oblige, saying ingenuously that "the Muslims in France represent the second religion in our country… And the Republic will protect their beliefs and savor the practice of their cult… That which I denounce in my address is the [moral] relativism of the Socialist party."

While innocently denying that he was targeting the Muslims, Guéant gave credit to his party for banning the wearing of the veil in public and praying in public, letting anyone draw the obvious conclusion.

The minister was accused by the Socialists of trying to pry away voters from Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the National Front. He had done this successfully in the 2007 campaign. The Minister of Interior blithely denied that this was his intention.

Whether this was the underlying strategy or not, the latest polls show support for Le Pen declining and support for the president rising. If the polls are accurate, it means that the threat of Sarkozy being ousted on the first ballot has receded as he has opened up a lead on Le Pen. The still unannounced candidate, Sarkozy, trails his Socialist rival Francois Hollande in the polls for the first ballot as well as the decisive second ballot.

Hollande, for his part, was defending and attacking on the law and order front, where he expects the UMP to attack. He accused the government of failing to provide the necessary police manpower and he pledged to fight juvenile delinquency by increasing the number of special schools where juvenile offenders will effectively be incarcerated. To avoid giving the impression that he had gone over to the right, Hollande balanced this with a pledge that ministers who up to now have gone before special tribunals when accused of criminality, will now be processed by the justice system in the same manner as the average French citizen.

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