'It's very simple,' said Francois. 'If they're innocent, we should let them go. If they're guilty, they should be killed. What do you think?'

Francois lives in Folembray, a quiet village in Picardy, in northern France. Three weeks ago Charles Pasqua, France's hardline interior minister, decided to convert a disused barracks in the village into a holding camp for Algerians arrested in a nationwide crackdown on terrorism. Suddenly the village became host to two dozen 'Islamic militants' and to hordes of journalists. The locals were not best pleased.

When the first detainees arrived they were met by a hail of stones and abuse from villagers. 'We should point a flame thrower at them,' said one local woman.

Francois, like most of his fellow villagers, approves of Pasqua's line. 'Why should we pay to feed them and look after them?' he asks. 'We can hardly make ends meet round here. Why should we have to pay taxes to house terrorists?' He points to a rundown building in the village. 'That's a hostel for homeless people,' he says. 'There are French people living there without enough money for a roof over their head or for a decent meal. But the Islamic killers get three square meals a day.'

If many of the villagers of Folembray are angry at playing host to 'Islamic terrorists', their guests are angrier still. The General Billotte barracks are surrounded by a 15ft fence topped by rolls of barbed wire. Armed policemen patrol the perimeter. The detainees all sleep together in one dormitory, the sanitary conditions are poor, the food is execrable. 'We are meant to be under house arrest,' Djaffer El-Houari, one of them commented. 'That may be true, but only if our house had happened to be a prison.'

El-Houari is president of the French branch of Algeria's main opposition group, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). He is also a deputy in the Algerian parliament, having been elected in the first free elections 18 months ago. But he never took his seat. The election process was halted by the Algerian military once it became clear that Islamic groups were likely to win.

As a member of the FIS, El-Houari knows that he would face almost certain imprisonment if he returned to Algeria. Now, however, he finds himself behind bars in France.

El-Houari makes no attempt to hide his militant Islamic politics. But, he says, he has done nothing wrong: 'You probably don't agree with my politics. Fine. Many people being held here do not agree with me. But as far as I know France is meant to be 'le pays de droits de l'homme'. It is not supposed to be illegal to have a political opinion.'

Others in Folembray find it even harder to understand why they have been detained. Said Magri owns a pizza restaurant in Lille. He has never had any contact with Islamic groups. His brother Ahmed thinks Magri was arrested because he once shared a flat with an Algerian wanted by the police. Magri himself says he was not aware that his former flatmate was a wanted man.

Ali Ammar is lecturer in geology at the University of Orleans. 'The police come looking for suspects,' he said, 'and if they cannot find the one they are after, they take the next best thing: a wife or a neighbour. That's why I am in here.'

Of the 25 internees at Folembray, seven are acknowledged members of FIS. The rest say they have few, if any, links with Islamic politics. 'Charles Pasqua might as well have rounded people up at random as they came out of a mosque or even a supermarket,' observes El-Houari. But that, it seems to many, is what Pasqua has been doing.

Pasqua's actions appear to have little to do with the recent killing of French nationals in Algeria. After all, none of the exiled members of the GIA, the hardline Islamic group responsible for the murders, has been arrested. The key to the anti-Muslim crusade is not so much Algerian politics but the politics of race and nation in France itself. The crackdown on FIS, ostensibly intended to stop terrorist activity, is also sending a message that Muslims do not belong in France.

Repressive measures are nothing new for French Muslims. In the immigrant areas of Paris, Lyons, Marseilles and other big cities the inhabitants have lived for years with police intimidation, violence and arrest. Last summer, a new series of regulations drafted by Pasqua legalised random identity checks, stop and search campaigns and police swamp operations.

Islam is one of the most powerful demons in French political iconography and Pasqua seems to have manipulated this to justify a wider campaign against immigrants.

'It is my view,' the former Socialist foreign minister Claude Cheysson said last week, 'that the present government has taken a much more enlightened position on this issue that the previous (Socialist) government.' Cheysson's words were deliberately chosen. For most French men and women the philosophy of 'enlightenment' and the secular, rational, republican tradition that emanates from the French Revolution lies at the heart of what it means to be French.

Central to the notion of French nationhood is a belief that the important division in French society is that between citizens and foreigners (les etrangers). Those who are accepted as French nationals have full rights of citizenship and in return are expected to assimilate to French values. Those who refuse to assimilate are deemed incapable of being French and hence unworthy of full citizenship rights.

Islam provides the ideal foil to this idea of French nationhood. As a religion it places obedience of theological strictures above loyalty to national laws. As a philosophy it celebrates the union between state and religion, eschewing the concepts of Western democracy and liberalism. For French politicians, Islam is tailor-made as the force of darkness seeking to extinguish the French tradition of reason and light. As the former French prime minister Jacques Chirac said, 'the call of Islam is incompatible with the duties of French citizenship.'

Recent episodes such as the headscarves affair - when Muslim girls were excluded from school for wearing their traditional headscarves in class - and debates about the creation of Muslim ghettos in the inner cities have crystallised this opposition between Islamic and French values. A decade ago many in France were asking why it was that French society had so marginalised its black and Arab citizens. Today, the question has been reversed: it is why France's immigrant population refuses to assimilate French values.

In reality, the opposition between French reason and Islamic obscurantism is not as straightforward as it might appear. On the one hand there is no clear cut separation between religion and the state, between the private and the public in the French tradition. The major public holidays, for instance, are all Christian festivals and the state subsidises private Catholic schools. On the other hand, those regarded as 'Muslims' are rarely the fundamentalist figures of republican stereotypes. The social mores of young North Africans in France today are little different from those of their white counterparts - they smoke, drink, eat pork, indulge in sex.

The division in France is not between Islamic reaction and Western liberalism but between those who are accepted as French, and the rest - North Africans and other black 'immigrants'. Now, this racial division is being recast as one of different value systems, giving French politicians a measure of popular support for their policies.

How far Pasqua has succeeded in manipulating the fear of Islam can be gauged by the degree of support given by his political opponents for his crackdown. 'The fundamentalists have declared war on us,' said the former Socialist foreign minister Claude Cheysson. 'We have to declare war on them.' Even Liberation, the most liberal national newspaper, argued that while some of Pasqua's tactics may have been misguided, his actions were nevertheless necessary 'to prevent French territory from becoming a base camp for Islamic activism'.

For the right, the anti-Islamic stance of the government has provided a useful way of putting pressure on the left to back its policies on race and immigration. At a time of widespread disenchantment with the political process, and with next May's presidential elections in mind, it has also created a useful vehicle for establishing a national consensus behind the right.

Opposition to Islam is, in itself, not a hallmark of a racist. After all, many people object to Islam because of what they see as its backward ideas and its degrading view of women. But by incarcerating these Algerians in Folembray Pasqua seems to many Muslims to be signalling that any of them could end up interned there because every Muslim is a potential danger to France. 'If we were to begin arresting people on presumed friendships with presumed Islamic sympathisers,' Salah Djemai, a solicitor for the Folembray detainees has said, 'then 5 million people would have to be locked up.'

Additional reporting by Richard Ings.

(Photographs omitted)