PARIS – French President Nicolas Sarkozy's ousted adviser on diversity called the president's conservative party the "plague of Muslims" amid a growing furor over its plans to debate Islam's role in France.
Even Prime Minister Francois Fillon, a prominent member of the governing UMP party, is distancing himself from its debate next week on secularism and religion in France. Fillon said Thursday he won't take part.
Many of the debate's critics fear it could lead to the stigmatization of French Muslims. Its backers say it is needed to reaffirm France's secular traditions and address evolutions in French society — such as a growing demand for mosques and Islamic butchers — in a country with western Europe's largest Muslim population.
Sarkozy fired his diversity adviser Abderrahmane Dahmane last month after Dahmane criticized the debate.
In an interview Thursday, Dahmane told The Associated Press that he wants to rally Muslims against the UMP and its leader, Jean-Francois Cope, in charge of the debate.
"We are going to engage the whole (Muslim) community against Jean-Francois Cope and against his party. Cope's UMP is the plague of Muslims," he said.
Dahmane is a controversial figure of Algerian descent who has called on French Muslims to wear a green star Tuesday in a sign of protest, similar to the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear under Nazi occupation.
Prominent Jewish figures in France have bristled at the comparison between France's Muslims today and Jews persecuted and killed in World War II.
Critics say the UMP party is not the appropriate forum for such a debate on religion.
The prime minister's office said Fillon would not take part in the debate because "it is not the right place to express the government's position."
"Talking about Islam in France is not taboo," Dahmane said. "We have to debate but we do not have to discriminate," he said, adding he is in favor of a debate in a multiparty commission at the Parliament.
Dahmane said the debate only serves one goal: to enable Sarkozy to win the 2012 presidential elections by gaining far-right votes. The anti-immigrant National Front party performed well in local elections Sunday.
The debate comes days before a new law comes into effect banning the face-covering Islamic veil, which Sarkozy says makes women "prisoners." A 2004 law bans Islamic headscarves and other ostentatious religious symbols from public schools. Traditionally Catholic France formally separated church and state with a 1905 law.