This is one issue Sarkozy cannot draw a veil over

British photographer unexpectedly finds his work at the centre of France's hottest political debate

The award-winning British photographer Martin Parr is known for his laconic, amusing images of popular culture in gleaming, seaside postcard colours. Politics and polemics are not usually his territory. But now an exhibition of Parr photographs, taken and displayed in reputedly the most dangerous quarter in Paris, has become a talking point in the hottest French political debate of the moment.

Tomorrow, France's ban on the full-length veil, or niqab, takes effect. Last week President Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right political party split down the middle after organising a public debate on whether Islam is compatible with the secular tradition of the French Republic. Mr Sarkozy stands accused, even within his own party, of exploiting fears of Islam to try to counter the resurrection of the far-right National Front.

Mr Parr's photographs have been hailed in the French media as a brilliant, humorous counterpoint to what Le Monde called the "simplistic political cliché" about Muslims and immigrants in France. They show in a non-sensational way one of the subjects about which political controversy rages in France. Dozens of men pray on their knees blocking an entire street, the Rue Polonceau in the Goutte d'Or, during Friday prayers. Another image shows, with classic Parr deadpan humour, men praying in the street in front of a shop marked Produits Exotiques.

Marine Le Pen, the new far-right leader whose rise in the polls has sent President Sarkozy into a moral panic, makes much of Islamic prayers in the street. She calls them a form of "occupation", equivalent to the Nazi occcupation of France. She does not mention that French Muslims only pray in the street because there are not enough mosques in France (only two for the estimated 25,000 people living in the half a square kilometre of the Goutte d'Or). In fact, Ms Le Pen says that there is no need for more mosques in France and opposes suggestions that the state should help to build them.

The Goutte d'Or may or may not be as dangerous to visit as many Parisians fear. During his week-long visit in January, Parr had to desist from taking pictures of illegal street hawkers when his camera was almost stolen. He says he rarely takes pictures in France because he finds that the French are "paranoid" about having their photographs taken. In that and other respects, he says, he found that French Muslims are "much more similar to other French people than French people are to Britons".

The free exhibition is open until 2 July, from Wednesday to Sunday at the Institut des Cultures d'Islam, 19-23 Rue Léon, 18th arrondissement, Paris

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