PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy has declared multiculturalism a failure, echoing British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and confusing some French who say it was never tried here anyway.
His declaration, in a televised interview Thursday evening, also opened him up to criticism that he was the only French politician who flirted with idea that countries should accommodate immigrants' cultures different from their own.
France has stood out in Europe by proudly refusing to bend to some unfamiliar practices, most notably the Muslim veils it has outlawed in public and headscarves it banned from schools. Germany has been more flexible and Britain much more so.
Despite their differences, all three say they have a problem with the integration of Muslims and their statements on multiculturalism clearly focus on those minorities.
"It's a failure," Sarkozy said of multiculturalism. "The truth is that, in all our democracies, we've been too concerned about the identity of the new arrivals and not enough about the identity of the country receiving them."
"This raises the issue of Islam and our Muslim compatriots," he said. "Our Muslim compatriots should be able to live and practice their religion like anyone else ... but it can only be a French Islam and not just an Islam in France."
Cameron said last week that multiculturalism had failed and left young British Muslims vulnerable to radicalism. Amid a heated debate about Muslim immigration last October, Merkel denounced the approach and said newcomers must integrate.
A group representing French people of African origin called on Sarkozy Friday to explain what his statement meant.
"The diversity of French society, especially its religious diversity, cannot be a failure because this diversity is France itself," Patrick Lozes, head of the Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN) said.
"By a large majority, the "black and Arab" French, whether Muslim or not, do not seek a juxtaposition of cultures. They're French citizens like any others and want social justice."
Popular Muslim news websites sharply criticized the speech. One of them, SaphirNews, said Sarkozy had used "stigmatizing rhetoric" to go "hunting for votes on the far-right." Oumma.com said he was "already out campaigning" for reelection next year.
Marine Le Pen, the newly elected head of the far-right National Front, showed the issue could backfire on Sarkozy by recalling how he helped form France's official Muslim council in 2003 when he was interior minister.
"He repeated a few lies, especially about his willingness to fight against multiculturalism and communalism even though he's been promoting them for years," she said after the speech.
Sarkozy has upset many in France, including believing Muslims, Catholics and Jews, by stressing the positive role faith can play in civil society. French politicians prefer to keep religion out of the public sphere as much as possible.
Sarkozy first directed this attention toward Muslims, stressing the positive role imams could play in integration, but has shifted it toward stressing France's Catholic traditions since his election as president in 2007.