PARIS -- President Nicolas Sarkozy's government has made a play for the anti-immigrant voters who may determine whether he wins a second term, saying Tuesday that France had booted out more illegal migrants in the past year than ever before.
Sarkozy's interior minister added that he wants thousands more expelled this year, along with fewer foreigners legally living in France. Anyone who wants to stay, he added, must shed the traditions that contradict French values.
The conservative president is unpopular and facing a tough challenge from the left and the resurgent far right in presidential elections to be held in April and May in an increasingly diverse France. Sarkozy hasn't formally declared his candidacy but is widely expected to run.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant lauded the government's record, saying French authorities expelled 32,912 illegal immigrants in 2011, up 17.5 percent from 2010.
"This result is 5,000 higher than the initial objective decided upon at the start of the year. It is the highest result ever achieved," he said. The government wants the figure to rise to 35,000 this year, he added.
Echoing one of Sarkozy's favored themes, Gueant said immigrants must better integrate.
"We reject ... cloistered lives lived along ethnic and religious grounds, those that live by their own laws," Gueant told reporters. "The foreigners that we welcome here must integrate themselves. It is up to them to adapt to us, not the other way around."
The comment was in part a reference to France's ban on Islamic face veils, a 2010 law that supporters said defended women's freedoms, but critics said stigmatized millions of moderate Muslims.
France has western Europe's largest Muslim population, many with family ties to former French colonies in North Africa.
The majority of immigrants come to France legally, though the number of new arrivals is shrinking and Gueant wants to reduce it further. The number of residency permits issued last year shrank 3.6 percent to 182,595, he said.
"We want to fight against illegal immigration and control the flow of normal immigration to France. What is at stake is the cohesion and the equilibrium of our society and our ability to maintain our tradition of welcoming them," Gueant said.
Sarkozy has championed strict policies on crime and illegal immigration – ground where he is politically threatened by far right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
Le Pen has a strong voter base, and her National Front party has targeted immigrants and Muslims for its ire.
Anti-racism group SOS Racisme called the figures released Tuesday "numbers of shame."
"The serious problems confronting our country will not be resolved by applying a policy of quantified expulsions, which attack human rights. Behind each expulsion, there is a life that is ending," it said in a statement.
It urged the government to allow residency for migrant workers, allow foreign students to work in France and simplify application procedures to encourage migrants to seek legal residency.
Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed to this report.