PARIS (AP) — France’s prime minister scrambled Wednesday to dispel concerns in the Jewish and Muslim communities after criticizing the ritual slaughter of animals for kosher and halal meat.

Halal meat in particular has emerged as a hot-button issue in the campaign for presidential elections starting next month in France, a country with at least 5 million Muslims, the largest such population in western Europe.

Francois Fillon’s call for religions to “reflect” upon what he called outdated traditions has fed a hyper-charged political atmosphere. His boss, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, has openly courted far right voters in hopes of boosting his lagging chances of re-election, with digs at Muslim practices and calls to shrink immigration.

But for many, Fillon’s comments went too far. He hosted Jewish leaders Wednesday and was expected to meet with Muslim leaders Thursday in what appeared to be an attempt to ease concerns about his comments on French radio this week.

The Jewish leaders he met with Wednesday said Fillon assured them that Judaism wasn’t targeted, but insisted they would keep an eye on government policy. France also has a large Jewish community, estimated at about half a million.

Most French are Roman Catholic by heritage, and many French holidays and traditions are linked to Christianity. But for a century the government has professed allegiance to a strict separation of church and state.

It was in the name of this official secularism that Sarkozy — and many French people — backed a 2010 law banning the face-covering Islamic veil such as the niqab or burqa in all public space in France. France also bans the Islamic headscarf and other obvious religious symbols from public schools.

Polls suggest Sarkozy is facing an uphill battle against front-runner Socialist Francois Hollande for the elections, to be conducted in two rounds April 22 and May 6.

Sarkozy has been upfront about trying to lure votes from the far right National Front’s candidate Marine Le Pen, who shows in a strong third place in polls and whose father made it into the 2002 presidential election runoff.

Sarkozy hit a nationalist note with his first big campaign rally last month and has continued the theme since. On Saturday, he criticized special indulgences for halal meat in schools or separate swimming hours for Muslim women in public pools.

“There is no place in the republic for xenophobia, there is no place for racism. … There is no place for pools with hours for men and hours for women,” Sarkozy told a rally in Bordeaux.

On Tuesday he called for halving the number of immigrants who come to France each year. Many immigrants are from largely Muslim former French colonies in Africa.

“I think that in order to relaunch integration under favorable circumstances, we need to divide by two the number of people that we welcome (to France). So to go from 180,000 to 100,000,” he said.

Hollande has proposed more generous measures toward immigrants, including allowing all foreigners residing in France legally for five years to have the right to vote in local elections.

Ritual slaughter according to Jewish and Muslim traditions has caused political debate elsewhere in Europe as well.

In the Netherlands, the lower house of parliament approved a ban last year on the traditional method of cutting the animal’s throat without stunning it first. Animal rights groups and a large anti-Islam political party — and a majority of Dutch voters — supported the bill. But after an outcry that the ban would violate religious freedoms, support evaporated when the bill was sent to the upper house.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.