PARIS – They are France’s millions-strong minority with a voice that usually falls silent at election time. But this year, there is a special effort to mobilize French Muslims to speak up at the ballot box in Sunday’s presidential race — amid a surge of Islam-bashing among the French right.

Imams and Islamic associations are calling on Muslims to do their duty as citizens and go to the polls. And while they’re not officially endorsing anyone, the call itself is a bold move in a country where statistics on religious affiliation are formally banned and where secularism is enshrined in the constitution.

Socialist Francois Hollande — the poll favorite — is more likely to benefit from the get-out-the-vote push, because conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has spoken out against Muslim practices in his campaign and experts say that Muslims in poor neighborhoods and Muslim youths tend to vote for the left. But the Muslim vote is diverse, and there’s no guarantee that the push will bring out voters, since Muslims have tended in the past to avoid politics.

French Muslims have been pounded with blame throughout the campaign for what they eat (halal meat), how they pray (in the street), and for allegedly using their growing numbers to supplant France’s civilization with their own. The massacre of Jewish schoolchildren and French paratroopers in March by an alleged Islamic extremist put Muslims in the spotlight anew and fed far-right fear mongering.

Under the banner of patriotism and preserving the national identity, Sarkozy is trolling for far-right votes as he tries to undo Hollande.

For some Muslim religious leaders, it is time to act.

“We don’t live on Mars. We live in France and we are constantly listening to what is happening,” said Kamel Kabtane, the rector of the Lyon mosque, who was among a group of imams at some 30 mosques in southeast France pressing Muslims to vote.

“By this initiative, we want to show that Muslims aren’t citizens of the second zone. … They can vote for whom they want but be present in the voting booth,” he said.

The more than 5 million Muslims in France — the largest such population in western Europe — could potentially prove a decisive vote for or against a candidate. But experts say their footprint on the political landscape is nearly invisible.

In most cases, imams say they make a point not to advise the faithful how to vote. For the head of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, such calls to vote are dangerous because they risk dragging a religion into politics, and “I refuse it.”

“Mobilize, yes, but not in the name of Islam,” he said. “In the name of justice, the economy, housing projects, misery, unemployment. But not in the name of Islam.”