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PARIS (Reuters) - An on-air racial quip that landed one of France's best-known political commentators in court has exposed raw differences about what can and cannot be said in public on ethnicity and its role in social problems.
The issue could undermine President Nicolas Sarkozy in a battle for re-election in 2012 against a far-right that has scored early points in the polls by exploiting mistrust of Islam by criticizing Muslim street prayers and halal-only restaurants.
Sarkozy has largely failed to lift the taboos on addressing the root causes of alienation and joblessness among France's immigrant youth as he promised to do when elected in 2007, leaving him open to accusations of inaction from all sides.
"He could be taken to task on results, which after all is the culture he promoted," said Francois Miquet-Marty, an analyst at the Viavoice polling agency. "In 2005, there were riots in the suburbs, and the situation has not changed much today. You could say that expectations have not been met."
At the center of the latest polemic is Eric Zemmour, a polarizing figure who has made a career of testing the limits of political correctness but had, until December, avoided prosecution for what he wrote and said on air.
That changed when Zemmour, a Frenchman of Algerian Jewish origin, said on a talk show panel that if black and Arab people were stopped by the police more often than other ethnic groups, it was because they were more likely to be "dealers".
"Eric Zemmour violated a French taboo. There are some questions, including that one, which one is simply not allowed to ask in France," said Frederic Micheau, a researcher at the IFOP polling institute.
The taboo is one of the founding principles of modern France, a secular country where equality before the law is official dogma and where it is forbidden to classify citizens according to race, gender or religion.
Scrutiny of France's universalist principle comes as leaders in France, Britain and Germany proclaim the death of multiculturalism as a social concept, amid a broader backlash against immigration across the Europe.
With his popularity rating at 24 percent in one recent poll, Sarkozy is not likely to encourage any soul-searching on the founding principle that forbids invoking ethnicity, gender or religion when discussing social problems.
But pollsters say French voters on the center-right and center-left are gradually becoming more frustrated with a principle that treats all citizens the same, regardless of their origins and in spite of ethnic discrimination for jobs.
A Franco-American academic study in late 2010 showed that a Muslim job candidate is 2.5 times less likely to be called in for an interview in France than a Christian counterpart. Yet the equality principle makes such discrimination hard to track easily -- or bring up with any frankness.
"In France, with our Republican heritage, we simply don't know how to talk about these issues," Miquet-Marty said. "The Republican ideal is less and less credible ... people are starting to feel that ethnic origins and religion need to be taken into account far more openly."
Jarring against those principles, Zemmour's quip landed him in court on charges of inciting racial hatred and defamation.
The former charge was later lessened to encouraging discrimination. A final decision in the trial is due on February 18, and Zemmour faces a fine if found guilty.
At the trial, Prosecutor Anne Defontette addressed Zemmour directly, saying his status as a public figure aggravated his offense: "Discrimination, sir, is not a right but an offense."
But dozens of politicians have criticized the trial and the head of France's Reporters Without Borders group argued that by-the-book reading of equality principles were stifling free speech in France.
In letters to the court, they argued that while Zemmour made a crude argument, it would be hard to prove him wrong.
France's government does not publish statistics on the ethnic or religious makeup of its population. Still, a 2004 study commissioned by the French government showed that Muslims -- most of whom hail from immigrant backgrounds -- are vastly overrepresented in France's prison population.
"There is no doubt that Mr. Zemmour, in the heat of debate, used an excessively brutal formula, but he did not, unfortunately, say something materially untrue," Socialist Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a former interior minister, wrote in one letter.
Critics of the universalist principle say addressing race as a factor in social problems could help fight discrimination and encourage diversity in a country largely ruled by a white elite.
"There are very specific French principles which push neutrality to a degree unheard of in Nordic countries," said Eric Molinie, head of anti-discrimination group La Halde. "We could be more flexible, but the British model of multiculturalism is not necessarily what we want to follow."
Editing by Catherine Bremer and Elizabeth Piper