French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to protect Muslims' rights as he joined the Iftar feast Monday at the Great Mosque in Paris, marking the breaking of the daily fast in the holy month of Ramadan.
In the first such gesture by a French president to the country's sizeable Muslim minority, Sarkozy met senior Muslim clerics and promised: "I will be at your side to defend your rights. I ask you to be at my side to carry out your duties."
"Even in the government, some are observing this fast (of Ramadan)…this shows that from the top to the bottom of our society Islam is an integral part of our country," Sarkozy told his hosts.
"Much as it might displease some of those I oppose, Islam is also France," he said.
But he also said France expected all its citizens to respect French core values such as the separation of Church and state, and he condemned extremists who were using Islam to spread hate.
"Those who want violence in the name of Islam, hatred for others in the name of Islam, have no business being on French soil," Sarkozy said.
"I haven't betrayed the commitment that I made to give all my backing to Islam in France, and to fight extremism with all my strength. The two things go together," he said.
"Certain extremists want to put an end to this peace which we have in our country. Those who kill in the name of Islam and want to push the world into a global religious war smear Islam by speaking its name," he said.
With about five million Muslims, France is home to Europe's biggest Islamic community.
Sarkozy has encouraged institutional dialogue between mainstream French Muslim clerics and the broader society, but his tough stance on immigration has made him unpopular among Muslims.
France is also one of the few countries to have passed legislation banning visible religious symbols in public schools, such as the Islamic headscarf.
The law sparked a wave of anger and incomprehension among Muslims worldwide, but in France the controversy that surrounded its adoption three years ago has all but died down.
Racism in France
Meanwhile an independent U.N. expert on minority issues said Monday, racism in France is "alive, pernicious and most of its victims are French citizens from visible minorities, not immigrants."
"Because of the color of their skin, their religion, their surname or their address, these young people in France see no chance of social mobility" said Gay J. McDougall, after a ten day visit to the country.
"People who work hard, play by the rules and believe in the ethos of the Republic, yet find themselves trapped in ghettos, isolated in enclaves where the unemployment rate can reach 40 percent" she said.
Members of visible minorities "feel discriminated against and rejected by a rigid preconceived idea of 'French-ness' which they don't correspond to" she added.