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French Elections Marred by 'No to Islam' Campaign

Supporters of far right-wing French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen stand in front of the courthouse in Marseille where Le Pen is accused of inciting racism in the recent anti-Muslim poster campaign by the youth wing of his party, the Front National, 05 Mar

Upcoming French regional elections are marked by a particularly incendiary campaign poster that targets the so-called "Islamization" of France.

Ahead of the first round of French regional elections Sunday, much of the talk on the airwaves is about the drubbing President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party is expected to receive in the polls.

But the far-right National Front party has also managed to heat up the debate - with a new campaign poster featuring the Algerian flag, a veiled woman, and half a dozen minarets shooting out of a map of France. The tagline - "No to Islamism" - apparently targets extreme manifestations of the Muslim religion.

In a recent campaign speech, the National Front's 81-year-old leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, denounced mosques that were "growing like mushrooms" in France. During an interview this week on TF1 television channel, Le Pen was more nuanced in his criticism.

Le Pen said the poster was not against Islam and Algeria but against Islamism - and the fact French youth of north African origin do not appear to be patriotic.

The Algerian government has protested against the campaign poster - as has a Swiss advertising agency, which claims the National Front plagiarized from its campaign for a minaret ban in Switzerland. The issue is particularly sensitive as the French government is considering a ban against face-covering veils.

Rights groups and anti-discrimination groups like the Representative Council of Black Associations have also expressed outrage. Patrick Lozes heads the council, which is known as CRAN.

"I think this poster needs to be condemned very firmly. At some point it is necessary to begin talking about racism. And I think there is a racist climate growing in France," he says.

What's good, Lozes says, is that racism is being discussed in France - which he claims was not the case just a few years ago.

This week, the CRAN submitted a report to the French government outlining 15 ways to fight racism in France, including creating an agency to monitor it. The government says it will report back in the next two months.