|The protester's banner reads 'the veil in front of your eyes is much more dangerous than the veil on my hair' [EPA]
France's conservative ruling party has held a controversial debate on the practice of Islam, rejecting charges of bigotry and saying that airing the issue could help stem the rising popularity of the far-right.
President Nicolas Sarkozy had called for Tuesday's discussion on Islam and secularism to address fears that some overt displays of Muslim faith - including street prayer and full-face veils - were undermining France's secular identity.
The UMP party were considering 26 ideas officials said were aimed at bringing France's stringent laws decreeing the separation of church from state into step with the times.
Even before it began, the debate had been tarnished by criticism from religious leaders, a boycott by France's largest Muslim group, and the absence of Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
"For weeks, everything possible has been done to stop this meeting taking place ... but we have not yielded to those pressures ... because it is the French people who asked us for it," Francois Cope, the secretary-general of the UMP party, said.
"One less problem is one less electoral argument for Marine Le Pen," he said.
With his popularity at record lows a year before a presidential election, Sarkozy has been accused of seeking to woo back right-wing voters increasingly drawn to the National Front party under its new leader Marine Le Pen.
The proposals discussed on Tuesday include banning the wearing of religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves or prominent Christian crosses by day-care personnel and preventing Muslim mothers from wearing headscarves when accompanying school field trips.
Another proposal would prevent parents from taking their children out of mandatory subjects including gym and biology.
The debate could lead to a legislative bill in the National Assembly, where the UMP has a majority.
"The practice of Islam in France is not the burqa. It is not prayers in the street."
jean-Francois Cope, UMP leader
The round-table came as a new law banning garments that hide the face is to take effect on April 11.
Under the ban, women who wear the face-shrouding veils risk a fine, special classes and a police record.
Islam is France's second biggest religion after Roman Catholicism. Interior Minister Claude Gueant says there are five to six million Muslims in the country.
Tuesday's discussion brought together several ministers, chief rabbi Gilles Bernheim and representatives of other religions, but no Muslim clerics.
Muslim groups have accused the conservative UMP of stigmatising their faith.
Critics from the opposition Socialist party contend the debate is an electoral ploy aimed at appealing to voters who could be swayed by the National Front.
Jean-Francois Cope, the UMP leader, insisted on Monday that France needs clearer rules about how Muslims should adapt their religious practices to French society.
"The practice of Islam in France is not the burqa. It is not prayers in the street,'' he said.
'Easing' social tensions
In some neighbourhoods with large Muslim immigrant communities, the lack of mosques or prayer rooms means crowds gather on sidewalks and cobblestone streets at prayer times.
Cope tried to distance himself from the National Front. "They denounce [Muslim practices]. We are making proposals'' to ease social tensions, he said.
The leaders of France's main religions have expressed concern about the debate, saying it is not the right forum for such a discussion.
"We were not for this debate in the format that was presented,'' France's chief rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, told reporters. France has western Europe's largest Jewish population.
Singh Ranjit, of the group Sikhs of France, said, "This concerns all of us because we all have difficulties as religious minorities when it comes to the relationship we have with the authorities.''
The debate has also taken on an international dimension.
A former foreign minister of the Comoros Islands, a largely Muslim nation in the Indian Ocean, said on the sidelines of the debate that France's influence goes beyond its geographical limits.
"Unfortunately because of what they call quarrels within France, people don't measure the impact that France has all over the world."