Sarkozy critics hit terror 'show arrests'

April 10, 2012 at 6:30 AM
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PARIS, April 10 (UPI) -- French Islamic groups and political opponents of President Nicolas Sarkozy this weekend condemned what they called "show arrests" of alleged extremists.

Ten people around France were rounded up in raids Wednesday recorded by television news crews. All were subsequently freed without charge over the next two days, Radio France International reported.

The arrests came as Sarkozy is locked in a tough presidential reelection race, with many polls indicating he is trailing his main opponent, the Socialist Party's Francois Hollande.

Critics were quick to link the arrests with the presidential campaign. They accused Sarkozy of exploiting the nation's skittishness over the killing of seven people in Toulouse last month by Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent who claimed to be a member of al-Qaida.

Centrist presidential candidate Francois Bayrou of the Democratic Movement said it was "amazing" state police had taken along television crews to record the arrests.

"That the state assumes its responsibility in bringing under control and prohibiting gatherings or gangs that could be suspected (of terrorism), that's fine," he told the French daily Le Monde. "Whether it (needs to) be done before journalists summoned for their cameras, I find it more amazing."

Former French Health Minister and Christian Democrat politician Philippe Douste-Blazy said it was "bizarre" there should be so many anti-terror arrests in the run-up to the May 6 first-round presidential election.

Hollande himself was more circumspect.

"I am not at all concerned at what is happening. What I'm saying is that we should have, or perhaps could have, done more before," he told RTL Radio. "If there are suspicions of terrorism risks, they must be averted."

When asked if he saw a link between these arrests and the presidential election, Hollande replied, "I did not say that, I said we should always act in prevention."

Last week's arrests were also the topic of debate at this weekend's 29th annual meeting of the Union of French Islamic Organizations, which drew thousands of people from across the country to an exhibition hall in the Paris suburb of Le Bourget.

The meeting was held against a backdrop of heightened tensions exacerbated by the Toulouse shootings and Sarkozy's response, RFI reported.

Controversial Swiss Islamic intellectual Tariq Ramadan used the occasion to harshly criticize the government's handling of Islamic relations during the presidential campaign.

Without specifically naming Sarkozy, Ramadan told attendees, "Instead of talking about halal meat, the burqa, national identity and dividing France, you should unite it.

"Of course [Merah's] murders in Montauban and Toulouse should be condemned without hesitation," he added. "But ... we don't expect a government to fan the flames."

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant told reporters before the conference he "regretted" the fact that Ramadan had been invited to speak and warned authorities would be "paying close attention" to the event -- making sure a recently passed French law essentially banning the Islamic face veil was enforced, France24 reported.

Anti-Islamic sentiment in France is becoming more intense, 24-year-old Cannes resident and humanitarian volunteer Said Salmi told the broadcaster.

"It's very, very difficult to live in Cannes," he said. "After Mohammed Merah, it became worse."

He asserted the tensions has prompted him to identify with his religion first and his nationality second.

"There are French people and there are Muslims and the Muslims are the bad guys," Salmi said.

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