British MEP Claude Moraes (Socialists & Democrats) said that Sarkozy was obviously hunting for the voters of Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front.
But more serious was the fact that he was taking Le Pen's xenophobic ideology to "a new level" by making it acceptable to a centrist audience, and the message was spreading across Europe.
The problem, he said, was not just about Sarkozy's "personal lack of principle", but that this type of discourse could affect millions of people in Europe from different ethnicities and backgrounds who have settled from abroad and who feel more and more stigmatised.
France's presidential election is 22 April with a run-off set for 6 May.
He also said that it was "quite extraordinary" that Sarkozy, who is of Hungarian descent, was telling the French that there are too many foreigners in the country. Moraes himself is born in India to Indian parents, and moved to Britain with them at the age of six.
He was Parliament Magazine’s 'MEP of the Year' in 2011 for his work on justice and civil liberties.
Moraes spoke at the presentation of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) shadow report for 2010-2011, released yesterday - the International Day Against Racism.
ENAR is a network of more than 700 NGOs working in all EU member states, and its yearly report is compiled from 27 national reports.
This latest report takes stock of the economic crisis, with migrants and ethnic minorities affected even more by unemployment and precarious working conditions.
"It's worrying to note that the political context is worsening," said ENAD President Chibo Oneyji. He highlighted the success of far-right parties in Europe, and that the economic downturn continues to exacerbate fears among the general public.
British MEP Jean Lambert (Greens/EFA) said the EU was not using its flagship 'Europe 2020' strategy, which provides for reducing the number of Europeans living beneath the poverty line, as well as for raising the employment rate (see background). She also said that she had doubts both about the strategy and the 'national action plans', which do not appear as a big priority.
Asked by EurActiv about what she planned to do herself on the issue, Lambert said she saw an opportunity for opening a dialogue between the European Parliament and national Parliaments over the way 'Europe 2020' should be implemented.