PARIS (Reuters) - France's far-right National Front said on Friday that a planned national debate on Islam and secularism would boost its support and improve its chances in the presidential election next year.
Party leader Marine Le Pen, who took over last month from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, mocked the planned debate as a new opinion poll showed she could score a strong 20 percent in the first round of the presidential vote.
President Nicolas Sarkozy's government wants the debate, due in April, to discuss whether France's five-million-strong Muslim minority supports the official separation of church and state.
Le Pen said it could end up backfiring on Sarkozy and his ally Jean-Francois Cope, the UMP party leader who announced on Wednesday that the debate would start in April.
"The last time (Sarkozy) used that, there was a debate about national identity and the National Front scored 15 percent in the regional elections," she told France Info radio.
"So keep it up, Mr Cope -- a little debate here, a little blah-blah about Islam and secularism there, and I think we'll end up winning 25 percent in the presidential election."
Critics said Sarkozy's government-sponsored debate on national identity in 2009-2010, which led to a ban on full face veils in public, turned into a public forum to air complaints about Muslims and make the minority feel stigmatised.
Defence Minister Alain Juppe, a senior Sarkozy ally, also warned about a debate. "We have to steer and master this debate, because it can get out of hand," he told the daily Le Figaro.
ANOTHER LE PEN SHOCK?
The Ifop poll published on Friday showed Le Pen could win 20 percent in the first round, which would put her in third place behind Sarkozy but in striking distance of Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry, the main opposition candidate.
Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked France by besting Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round in 2002. He went on to challenge President Jacques Chirac in the run-off but lost.
Le Pen said the Islam debate would "come up with solutions that are the opposite of what the French want.
"They will propose public financing of mosques, a change in the law separating church and state, a foundation to allow Muslims to finance mosques while not paying taxes ... I think this is exactly what the French don't want."
On Thursday, a government minister suggested changing the 1905 law on secularism to allow public financing of mosques, but government spokesman Francois Baroin promptly slapped that down.
"There is no bill on the government agenda to change the law," he said.
In her interview, Le Pen stressed her party's anti-immigrant populism by warning the current unrest in North Africa would create "a great wave of migrants" that would "submerge" France.
(Editing by Myra MacDonald)