PARIS French President Nicolas Sarkozy, facing a tide of criticism over his call for schoolchildren to "adopt" Jewish child victims of the Holocaust, hit back on Friday saying France had to raise children "with open eyes".
In a speech praising faith that also drew fire from secularists, Sarkozy told France's Jewish community on Wednesday that every 10-year-old schoolchild should be "entrusted with the memory of a French child victim of the Holocaust".
The proposal unleashed a storm of protest from teachers, psychologists and his political foes who said it would unfairly burden children with the guilt of previous generations and some could be traumatized by identifying with a Holocaust victim.
More than 11,100 French Jewish children were deported from France to Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps in eastern Europe during the German World War Two occupation.
"The emotional burden can have negative consequences for a child who is developing," Gilles Moindrot, general secretary of the Snuipp-FSU trade union which represents most primary school teachers, said in a statement.
"One can not place on a child of 11 the responsibility for what happened back then."
The EMDH children's rights group said: "No educational project should be constructed on death."
But Sarkozy, speaking in Perigueux in central France, brushed off the uproar.
"It is ignorance that produces abominable situations. It is not knowledge," he said in a speech. "Let us make our children, children with open eyes who are not complacent."
"Believe me, you will not traumatize children by giving them the gift of the memory of a country ... Any psychologist will tell you: you have to tell a child the truth," he said.
With Sarkozy's popularity ratings already at a low point, the controversy could further hurt his political standing only a month before key local elections when France will deliver its first judgment on his nine months in office.
AMMUNITION FOR FOES
The clamor gave fresh ammunition to Sarkozy's political foes, who charge him with erratic behavior and say his hyperactivity masks a lack of real policies.
"Really this president is extraordinary! One day he is preaching God to us ... Now he has suddenly become a teacher. He is deciding what's a good and what's a bad way to go about educating young children," fumed left-wing Senator Jean-Luc Melenchon.
But Sarkozy won support from opposition Socialist leader Francois Hollande and the president's conservative UMP party rallied in support.
Education Minister Xaviet Darcos assured people the project would be handled in a practical, low-profile way. "We won't be putting a policeman in each classroom," he told reporters.
The storm around the Holocaust proposal coincided with publication of a new poll that suggested Sarkozy's public romancing of supermodel-turned-singer Carla Bruni was the factor that had hurt his national image most.
Sarkozy and Bruni married secretly earlier this month but his critics saw the highly-publicized affair as a distraction too early in office.
The OpinionWay poll, conducted on the Internet for le Figaro and news channel LCI, found 82 percent of respondents believed Sarkozy's private life fell short of that of a head of state.
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau in Perigueux; Editing by Michael Winfrey)