France's governing party pressed ahead on Tuesday with a controversial debate on the nature of secularism and the challenges of Islam, an exercise criticized by some in the government and numerous religious leaders and ridiculed as cynical by both the Socialist opposition and the far-right National Front.

Held at a Paris hotel in the presence of some 600 religious leaders, legislators and journalists, the debate was shunned by prominent members of the government, and its title was altered to remove any reference to Islam, resulting in the anodyne "Secularism: To Live Better Together."

It was three hours of debate after two months of fierce political squabbling.

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