France's interior minister has walked into a firestorm of controversy with his weekend comments that some civilizations - notably his own - are worth more than others.
Critics saw Claude Gueant's comments as at best, misguided and cynical and, at worst, xenophobic, but he refused to back down Monday, confirming he had made the remarks Saturday at a meeting of right-wing youth and calling his viewpoint "good sense."
"Obvious words to note that not all civilizations have the same worth regarding the humanist values that are ours," Gueant said in an interview in the conservative daily Le Figaro.
As an example, he noted that the rival Socialists failed to vote for legislation that banned Muslim face veils.
"A year ago, UMP (President Nicolas Sarkozy's party) proposed to the National Assembly a bill to forbid the wearing of the face-covering veil, in conformity with (French) values," he told Le Figaro. "The Socialist Party did not vote for it."
The bill passed and burqa-style veils are now banned on the streets of France.
The campaign chief for Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande - the front-runner in polls ahead of presidential elections in April and May - called Gueant's comments "a premeditated, willful, conscious gesture" to build "bridges between the right and the extreme-right."
He's "targeting Muslims, he's targeting Islam," Pierre Moscovici said on LCI television.
Socialist politicians described the comments as a fishing expedition to lure voters from the far-right National Front to Sarkozy's conservative camp.
Sarkozy has yet to declare his candidacy in the presidential election, but is expected to do so by early March.
Too much Islam is a top theme of the National Front, which claims that France's estimated 5 million Muslims - many from former French colonies in North Africa - are gnawing away at French civilization.
Gueant insisted in Figaro on Monday that he wasn't out of his depth discussing foreign civilizations.
"Who can contest that there is a difference in values between a civilization that favors democracy, protects individual liberties ... promotes the rights of women, and a civilization that accepts tyranny, accords no importance to liberties and does not respect equal rights between men and women?" Le Figaro quoted him as saying.
Sarkozy brushed aside the outrage as a "ridiculous argument" in a Monday interview with France 2 TV station.
"The interior minister said that a civilization ... that does not accord the same place and rights to men and to women doesn't have the same value," he said. "I don't want to argue about it."
National Front candidate Marine Le Pen has been silent on the issue. However, Socialists and anti-racism groups expressed contempt.
Socialist Party spokesman Bernard Cazeneuve on Monday denounced the interior minister's effort to "hierarchize humanity."
Last March, Gueant courted similar controversy when, discussing immigration, he said that the "French ... sometimes have the feeling of no longer being in their own home."
Le Pen responded soon after that for his comments he should get "an honorary membership card in the National Front." (nvn)