In pre-dawn raids, under the full glare of television cameras, French police on Wednesday again arrested several suspected Islamist radicals in cities across France. Ten persons were arrested on grounds that they had visited Afghanistan or Pakistan or that they had plans to do so, with the ultimate goal of carrying out individual acts of terrorism in France.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the swoops would continue “so long as the threat to the republic from radical Islam continues to exist”. This is the second series of arrests in the space of a week.

The raids have been openly criticised by several opposition candidates in the French presidential poll, now only three weeks away, as a publicity stunt by incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been trying to woo the extreme-Right vote.

Indeed, since a lone gunman — a petty criminal turned Islamist militant — of Algerian descent killed several persons including a Jewish rabbi and his two daughters in late March, Mr. Sarkozy has turned up the heat on “Islamist militancy” and has taken specific measures aimed at “rooting out” terrorism from France's large Muslim population, estimated at five million. Mr. Sarkozy has not hesitated to make political capital out of the shooting calling it “France's 9/11”.

These measures include the expulsion of extremist Imams, the arrest of suspected terrorists or militant would-be terrorists, proposed legislation to outlaw the consultation of Islamist or jihadist websites and the screening of candidates wishing to attend an Islamic conference in Paris later this month.

Course of justice

Centrist candidate Francois Bayrou called the dawn arrests “a blatant publicity gimmick”. He said inviting television cameras to film the arrests of persons presumed innocent until proven guilty, “hampered the course of justice”.

There is a clear and growing disquiet in the Muslim community in France, Europe's largest. The problem, however, is that most Muslims live in poor immigrant suburbs outside large cities and tend not to vote. The extreme-Right candidate, Marine Le Pen, has often used a very large brush to tar immigrants at large and Muslims in particular for the socio-economic problems France faces. Since France refuses to keep religious or ethnic statistics on the grounds that everyone is equal before the law, very few statistics are available about the social profile of Muslims.

In an attempt to pre-empt his rival, Mr. Sarkozy (who is to hold a major press conference on Thursday), French Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande announced a road map of what he would do in his first 60 days in office.

If elected, he would freeze fuel prices for 90 days, hire 60,000 more teachers, cut salaries of the President and Ministers and increase state handouts to the most needy, Mr. Hollande promised. He also said he would withdraw French troops from Afghanistan before the end of 2012.

With just three weeks to go before the first round of elections scheduled for April 22 (the final round run-off between the two top candidates is on May 6), Mr. Hollande, who had chalked up a formidable lead, appears to be losing momentum and the tide might be turning in favour of Mr. Sarkozy.

Late on Wednesday, Mr. Hollande and his former companion Segolene Royal — who in vain tried to beat Mr. Sarkozy in 2007 — will make a joint appearance at a campaign meeting in the town of Rennes. There have been rumours of infighting and power struggles within the Socialist Party in recent weeks and this public appearance of the couple (who lived together for 22 years and have four children) is intended to paper over the cracks.

Recent polls have shown for the first time that Mr. Sarkozy will beat Mr. Hollande in the first round of the poll which features 10 names on the ballot. The candidates range from Left-wing Trotskyists to extreme Right-wing xenophobes like Marine Le Pen of the National Front Party.

The extreme-Left candidate, Jean-Luc Melanchon, has surged ahead in the polls to grab third place behind Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande, who are running neck and neck. His sharp rhetoric against Ms. Le Pen has relegated her to fourth place and pushed centrist Francois Bayrou to fifth place. But Mr. Melanchon has also nibbled away at Mr. Hollande's electorate and for the first time there are doubts about his presumed electoral invincibility.

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