PARIS -- In a new book seen as a prelude to a presidential bid, France's finance minister is taking up the thorny question of how to reach out to an increasingly assertive Muslim minority and integrate it into a largely secular society.
Nicolas Sarkozy argues his countrymen need to worry less about religious symbols and more about the help Muslims need to build a moderate religious structure grounded in French traditions. He says that will help stem extremism's inroads into a community whose members often feel ignored and discriminated against.
In "The Republic, Religions and Hope," being published today, Sarkozy displays a thoughtful side that political observers said is part of a strategy to add gravitas to his reputation as a can-do man of action.
As finance minister since April, he has held a tight grip on France's budgetary purse and demanded often uncomfortable cutbacks. For two years before that, he led an aggressive crackdown on suspected terror groups and spearheaded the creation of the French Council of the Muslim Faith.
But many French also want their leaders to display an intellectual side.
"The book corresponds to a desire to not only come across as a man of action, but of reflection," said Nicolas Domenach, a journalist who has written a biography of Sarkozy. "Now, he's moving into a new phase -- to depict himself as presidential, someone who has the virtue of compiling his ideas and expressing them more strongly."
Publication comes just weeks before Sarkozy is expected to leave the government and take the helm of President Jacques Chirac's conservative party. Sarkozy, who ranks high in opinion polls, is seen as the top contender to succeed Chirac in 2007 and newspapers and magazines have widely published excerpts of his book.
The divide between religion and state has dominated debate in France, notably in the debate over a new law that bans conspicuous religious symbols like Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcaps, and large Christian crosses from schools.
Sarkozy opposed the measure, and he argues in the book that banning head scarves is tantamount to "secular extremism," although he says he accepts the law.
Sarkozy urges his compatriots to accept that Islam is now a permanent presence in France, with Muslims accounting for almost a tenth of its 60 million people.
But, he says, unlike Jewish and Christian groups with a long history here, Islam is relatively new and needs help -- mainly with building a religious infrastructure.
His proposal to modify a 1905 law banning state subsidies for religious groups is sure to spark more heated debate among the French, most of whom cherish the country's secular underpinnings.