He was responding to questions about a plan he unveiled on Tuesday in which imams would have to undergo studies in law, sociology and French institutions in state universities before being permitted to preach in the 1685 mosques and Muslim prayer rooms around the country.

Theological studies would continue to be carried out in recognised Islamic institutes.

De Villepin's reform would also see the establishment in January of ministry units involving domestic intelligence agents and police specialised in cracking down on what is seen as "radical Islam", and, from April, the launch of a Foundation for Islam that would help finance the building of mosques.

"French imams speaking French, that is our goal," he told parliament on Wednesday.

Currently more than a third of the 1200 imams, or Muslim prayer leaders practicing in France, "don't speak our language, which is unacceptable for our republic", he said.

Control mechanism

"A miracle solution" or "an attempt by France to control Islam?"

Liberation newspaper

The left-leaning daily Liberation asked if the initiatives were "a miracle solution" to help boost Islam in France, where it is the second-biggest religion after Catholicism, or merely "an attempt by France to control Islam?"

In an editorial, the newspaper gave a lukewarm endorsement, saying, "Why not, if this lifts the hypocrisy that today makes Islam a religion that is more tolerated than respected."

De Villepin told parliament that the specialised university course would be open from next September "to all those who wish to take part" and that imam training would be implemented in "regions where we have most need", citing the Paris area and the French Riviera as examples.