PARIS - A right-wing French politician has raised a new storm by suggesting Muslim youths tear pain au chocolat pastries from children's hands during Ramadan fasting month to gain support for his party's presidency, a move criticized by moderate and even far-right politicians as political games.
"[ Jean-Francois] Cope has never hesitated in going too far when it's in his interest," Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac, a leading figure in Francois Hollande's Socialist government, told Reuters on Thursday, October 11.
The controversy was inflamed after Cope, who is challenging a moderate rival to lead the main opposition conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, made the allegation of bullying by young Muslims in front of an audience of supporters last week.
There are areas where children cannot even eat their 'pains au chocolat' because it's Ramadan," Cope said, referring to an incident allegedly reported to him a few years ago by the mother of a child whose pastry was snatched at his school gate.
Evoking one of France's best-loved breakfast treats, the remark has provoked accusations that Cope is seeking to boost his appeal with the hard-right of his UMP party and so raise his chances of winning next month's leadership contest.
The comment has also drawn fire from UMP moderates, with ex-minister Francois Baroin calling it "toxic".
Even National Front leader Marine Le Pen weighed in, sniffing that Cope was trying to mimic his mentor, ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"He only notices the reality of racism when he is in a political campaign," Le Pen told France 5 TV.
France is home to a sizable Muslim minority of six million, the largest in Europe.
Before losing elections to socialist Hollande, Sarkozy has won the ire of French Muslims, estimated at six million, over a series of measures targeting their community.
Last year, Sarkozy's ruling UMP, started a debate on the role of Islam in secular France. He has also banned the Muslim hijab in schools and face-veil in public.
He has also vowed a crackdown on immigration because there are too many foreigners in France.
Sarkozy has also expelled a number of imams following a spate of killing in Toulouse on claims of inciting hatred.
Muslim leaders have distanced themselves from the killing, saying the murders run counter to the Islamic teachings.
Involving them in every political debate to gain votes, Muslims in the northern Paris suburbs accused Cope of stirring up the issue of ethnic intolerance for political gain.
"On the other hand, Cope is pretty clever to make this into an issue, said Abdel Hamza, 39, a bank employee, calling Cope rhetoric ridiculous.
He knows it will make the government uncomfortable, that it puts them in a difficult position," he added.
Leila Leghmara, a centrist politician in the suburb of Aubervilliers, urged Hollande to bring down rampant unemployment among Arab youths in poor suburbs where opportunities are few.
"There is an urgent need to help these young people, because the far-right is trying to stir up tensions," said Leghmara.
Trying to ease up tensions, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) set up a stand in Paris's St Lazare station on Wednesday handing out free pains au chocolat to commuters and offering to discuss the issue.
CCIF volunteers said only one passer-by made an offensive remark as they handed out some 400 of the chocolate pastries.
"We got a warm welcome and lots of supportive comments. People told us they are fed up with petty remarks by politicians that stigmatize Muslims," said Marcia Burnier, 26.
"We dispute the idea that there is tension between Muslim and Jewish groups. The issue is France accepting its diverse communities."