PARIS (Reuters) - An increasing majority of people in France believe Islam plays too influential a role in their society and almost half see Muslims as a threat to their national identity, according to a poll published on Thursday.
The survey by pollster Ifop in Le Figaro newspaper showed that 60 percent of people believed that Islam was "too important" in France in terms of its influence and visibility, up from 55 percent two years ago.
It found that 43 percent of respondents considered the presence of the Muslim community as a threat to their national identity, compared with just 17 percent who said it enriched society. Forty percent of those questioned were indifferent to the presence of Islam, Le Figaro said.
"Our poll shows a further hardening in French people's opinions," Jerome Fourquet, head of Ifop's opinion department, told the newspaper.
The struggle of secular France, whose people are mainly Catholic, to assimilate the largest Islamic population in Europe was thrust into the spotlight in March when Muslim Mohamed Merah, went on a shooting spree in southwest France that killed three Jewish children, a rabbi and three soldiers.
"In recent years, there has not been a week when Islam has not been in the heart of the news for social reasons: the veil, halal food, for dramatic news like terrorist attacks or geopolitical reasons," Fourquet said.
The prevalence of halal food and rising immigration - particularly from Islamic north Africa - were hot topics in the campaign for the presidential election as Nicolas Sarkozy sought to appeal to voters of the far-right National Front.
Sarkozy eventually lost to Socialist Francois Hollande but a contender to lead his conservative UMP party, Jean Francois Cope, put Islam back on the agenda this month by suggesting Muslim youths were tearing pain au chocolat pastries from children's hands during Islam's fasting month of Ramadan.
The publication of the poll also came after a far-right group occupied a mosque in the western city of Poitiers at the weekend and issued a "declaration of war" against what it called the Islamisation of France.
Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Muslim Council (CFCM), said fear of Islam was being stoked by political manipulation of concern over immigration and fears the growing Muslim population could lead to the imposition of sharia law.
"Islam has left the spiritual sphere to become a political subject," he said, in response to the poll. "Attempts to associate marginal practices with mainstream Muslim religion fuels the rejection of every aspect of Islam."
The survey, carried out on October 15-18 on 1,736 people, showed a growing resistance to the symbols of the Islamic faith. Some 43 percent of those questioned were opposed to more mosque building, up from 39 percent in 2010.
Sixty-three percent opposed Muslim women wearing the veil or Islamic headscarves in public, compared with 59 percent two years ago. Sarkozy's previous conservative banned the wearing of full-face veils.
Reporting By Daniel Flynn