Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing opposition party held an internal meeting Thursday on the "question of Islam" in France, boycotted by Muslim groups who warned of "stigmatizing" the religion in a country still reeling from January's jihadist attacks.
The former French president's right-wing party, recently rebranded "The Republicans," will debate "the place of religion" in secular France and more specifically "Islam in France."
One month after the January's attacks in Paris that killed 17, Sarkozy said: "The question is not to know what the Republic can do for Islam, but what Islam can do to become the Islam of France."
France is home to Europe's largest Muslim community and also the continent's biggest Jewish community but is officially secular.
Sarkozy insisted on the eve of the closed-doors meeting that "one shouldn't run away from debates."
"A country is like a family. You have to talk, you have to work things through," he said.
But Muslim groups said they would not be present at the meeting.
"We can't participate in an initiative like this that stigmatizes Muslims," said Abdallah Zekri from the French Muslim Council (CFCM).
The organization had "come under pressure to attend but will not be going," Zekri told AFP.
Another top Muslim group, the Union of Islamic Organisations of France said it had not received an invitation to attend but said it would not take part in "that type of debate".
"To debate with a political group that has just been formed and that starts with Islam makes us a bit uneasy," said its president Amar Lasfar.
He also said the group had not appreciated Sarkozy's comments in which he called for the veil in universities and substitute meals in schools to be banned.
The debate has also divided opinion within the center-right party, battling to stem the rise of the far-right National Front.
The party's vice-president Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, criticized the fact that the new party's first action was to debate Islam – a "bad idea", she said.
But the organizer of the meeting, MP Henri Guaino, hit back at the "ostriches" in the party, burying their heads in the sand over the issue of Islam in France.
"Can we not talk about subjects that split opinion? If you talk about immigration, you're a xenophobe. If you talk about security, you're a fascist. If you talk about Islam, you're an Islamophobe," said Guaino.