CAIRO - As the race for France's top post is heating up, allies of presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy are accusing mosques of encouraging Muslim voters to support his socialist rival in next week's runoff, a claim dismissed by French Muslims.
"I want to condemn the conniving and irresponsible attitude of the Socialist Party and its candidate after religious leaders belonging to a network of 700 mosques called on followers to vote for Francois Hollande," Eric Ciotti, lawmaker of Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, said in a press release cited by The National newspaper on Sunday, April 29.
Another UMP lawmaker Franck Riester said 700 mosques issued a call to Muslim worshippers to vote for Hollande in the May 6 runoff.
Riester cited a call by a Muslim group in Marianne magazine for a massive Halal vote for Hollande as a proof on mosques' interference in the election.
The magazine quoted Mohamed Salah Hamza, rector of a mosque in the 18th district of Paris, as saying that voting for Hollande was the best means of "defending our dignity against Islamophobia and the stigmatization of our community".
"Abstention, or voting blank, is haram," he told the magazine.
Sarkozy's allies also claim that mosques in Lyon have also urged Muslim voters to participate in the election and become participants in the struggle for change.
Riester said the appeal to Muslim worshippers to vote for Hollande was "serious and unacceptable".
French voters are set to go to polling stations on Sunday, May 6, to elect a new president between rivals Hollande and Sarkozy.
Sarkozy trailed second to Hollande in the first round of the vote, which saw the surge of far-right leader Marine Le Pen
Since his defeat, Sarkozy has hardened his tone on immigration in an effort to court far-right voters before the Sunday ballot.
He has repeatedly declared that there are too many foreigners in France and vowed to reduce legal immigration.
Echoing a Le Pen proposal, he has called for police to be given greater license to shoot fleeing crime suspects.
He has accused his Socialist rival Hollande of being backed by Islamists and said Le Pen's voters are respectable and her party compatible with the French Republic.
But Sarkozy's lurch to the right to win Le Pen's supporters has sparked worries inside his own party.
"Even though I will vote for Nicolas Sarkozy on the second round, it's clearly my duty to ring the alarm bell about this strategy," Etienne Pinte, a UMP lawmaker, told Reuters.
But Muslim leaders deny the accusations.
"Mosques and religious institutions must observe strict neutrality towards candidates in order to respect the principles of secularism," Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) said.
CFCM leader Abdallah Zekri told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that imams only call on Muslims to vote in the election, but have not given them instructions to whom to vote for.
Sarkozy earlier accused prominent Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan of rallying French Muslims to vote for his socialist rival.
Ramadan, a Swiss academic of Egyptian origin, has denied the claim.
Independent reports indicate that Ramadan did no more than urge an anti-Sarkozy vote at a time when there were 10 candidates in the first round.
Socialist candidate Hollande has also described the claims as lies.
He told France-Info radio that Sarkozy had falsely accused him of advocating residency rights for all illegal immigrants in France and was now lying about Muslims being told to vote socialist.
Sarkozy has won the ire of French Muslims, estimated at six million, over a series of measures targeting their community.
He has expelled a number of imams following a spate of killing in Toulouse on claims of inciting hatred. Muslim leaders have already distanced themselves from the killing, saying the murders run counter to the Islamic teachings.Last year, Sarkozy's party launched a debate on the role of Islam in secular France. He has also banned the Muslim hijab in schools and face-veil in public.