France has a “problem with Islam” and there is “too much” unwanted immigration, François Hollande has acknowledged in an explosive new book in which the Socialist president controversially claims that “the veiled woman of today” will tomorrow become France’s national icon, Marianne.

Over the course of 61 sit-down interviews and Elysée dinners with two investigative journalists, the French leader issues a string of extraordinarily unguarded comments on everything from Islam, football, “cowardly” judges, Nicolas Sarkozy “the little De Gaulle” and his tangled relationships with women.

Perhaps the most controversial passages are on immigration and Islam, in which Mr Hollande tells authors Gérard David and Fabrice Lhomme: “I there think there are too many arrivals, of immigration that shouldn’t be there.”

In another blunt comment, Mr Hollande says: “The fact that there is a problem [in France] with Islam is true. Nobody doubts that.”

“It’s not Islam itself that poses a problem for being a religion that dangerous for the Republic but because it wants to assert itself as a religion inside the French Republic,” he tells the authors.

Asked about the French Right’s obsession with national identity and the Muslim veil, Mr Hollande controversially responds: “The veiled woman of today will become France’s Marianne [national icon] of tomorrow.”

The ambiguous comments were interpreted by some on the Right as Hollande suggesting that the national symbol may become a woman in a burka, but Mr Hollande said that he meant he wanted to see Muslim women “free” from the veil.

“If we manage to provide the right conditions for her to flourish she will free herself from her veil and become French, while still remaining a believer if she wants to be, capable of carrying forth an ideal,” he says.

“Ultimately, what bet are we making? It is that this woman will prefer freedom to slavery, that the veil can be a form of protection for her but that tomorrow she won’t need it to feel reassurance about her presence in society.”

The comment sparked an angry reaction from Laurent Wauquiez, interim president of the opposition centre-Right Republicans party, who accused Mr Hollande of being “willing to barter this symbol of the French Republic for political Islam.”

“This is taking as a given the idea of selling off on the cheap the most powerful symbols of the French Republic,” he said.

In the book, A President Shouldn’t Say This…, Mr Hollande also lays into French footballers as unpatriotic “blokes from housing estates without bearings, without values, who left France too early” and who require “weight training on their brains” and inspire “no fondness”.

Many, like Manchester United star Paul Pogba and Leicester winger and footballer of the year Riyad Mahrez now play in Britain.

Such stars “went from poorly educated kids to ultra-rich stars without any preparation. They’re not psychologically prepared to know what’s good and bad,” Mr Hollande muses, bemoaning the “ghettoisation, segmentation and ethnicisation” of Gallic football.

Former French World Cup star Emmanuel Petit hit back on Wednesday, saying French politicians were the ones who needed their heads examined. “It’s true we’re not lucky enough to have gone to ENA [France’s top school for civil servants]. But I’d be happy to give politicians some weight training for the brain, and indeed to improve probity and honesty plain and simple,” he told RMC.

The president also addressed his complicated romantic history.

Mr Hollande, 62, insists that Ségolène Royal, the ecology minister and mother of his children, is the woman “to whom I feel the closest” despite his ongoing relationship with Julie Gayet, the actress, who he admits is “suffering” from the fact that he refuses to make their relationship official–a move he won’t make while president, he confirms.

His proximity to Ms Royal, not Ms Gayet, was the main reason Valérie Trierweiler decided to pen Thankyou for The Moment, her vengeful tell-all book on her ex-boyfriend, he claims. “Valérie’s obsession wasn’t Julie or another, it was Ségolène,” he says.

The least popular French president in modern history cuts a lonely figure, admitting that he feels like “the ghost of the Elysée”. But he has clearly not ruled out running for re-election next Spring, asking: “Is there anyone on the Left who can do better?” In a separate interview in L’Obs magazine on Wednesday, he said: “I”m ready.”

Mr Hollande focuses much of his bile on his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is seeking re-election and who he blasts as a money-obsessed “little De Gaulle” full of “vulgarity, meanness and cynicism”. He even mocks Mr Sarkozy’s upholstering of the Elysée Palace bathroom with wife Carla Bruni Sarkozy as in “terrible bad taste”.

Mr Hollande confesses he underestimated how many spies Mr Sarkozy had managed to keep at the Elysée after leaving.

Mr Sarkozy is banking on winning upcoming Right-wing party primaries and then re-election by playing on national “fear”–of immigration, religious fanaticism and Africa–he predicts.

Mr Sarkozy remains favorite in Mr Hollande’s eyes, but his ambitions could be scuppered by his judicial woes, he predicts.

Despite his misgivings he says he would have no qualms voting for Mr Sarkozy should he end up in a run-off with Marine Le Pen, the far-Right Front National leader next year.

The president is also surprisingly scathing of French judges who “don’t like politicians” and make up an “institution of cowardice”

François Bayrou, head of the centrist Modem party, said: “One wants to ask when will he stop confessing? And above all, when will he start getting on with the job!”

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