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French official vows Muslim crackdown

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PARIS — France's law-and-order interior minister has threatened to close any mosque in France that is considered extremist and expel any Muslim prayer leader who preaches a radical message.

In an interview in Le Figaro published on Thursday, the minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, also pledged to deny visas to Muslim participants in conferences who do not respect the values of the French state.

"The Muslims are not above the law, but they are not below the law either," Sarkozy was quoted as saying. "Because I have reached out my hand, I can be very firm against all fundamentalist movements."

More than any other official in France's center-right government, Sarkozy has sought to set strict limits on the behavior of the country's growing Muslim community. He is determined to create an "official Islam for France" that will take France's second-largest religion out of the "cellars and garages" and demonstrate that most Muslims are mainstream, law-abiding citizens.

"No one should expect any weakness from me. Mosques where extremist Islam is preached will be closed. Imams who give radical sermons will be expelled. And conference-goers who don't show proof of respect for republican rules will find themselves systematically denied visas to enter France," Sarkozy said.

He added: "There are 5 million Muslims in France. Whether that makes people happy or not, it's still a reality."

French law dictates a strict separation of church and state, and Sarkozy's remarks come amid a fierce debate about whether to pass a law banning head scarves in public schools.

Under current law, the wearing of head scarves in schools is valid as long as it is not "aggressive or proselytizing." But it has been left to the discretion of individual schools to decide, and while most ban the scarves, more Muslim girls are showing up at school in assorted head coverings. A commission is to make recommendations to the government by the end of the year on how best to preserve secularism in French society.