One of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's top ministers found himself engulfed by a political storm on Monday after he said that not all civilisations were equal.

Sarkozy, often accused of fishing for far-right voters to bolster his re-election prospects, defended Interior Minister Claude Gueant but opposition left-wingers cried foul and even some in Sarkozy's own camp distanced themselves from him.

Gueant made the remarks in a conversation with students: Contrary to the left-wing relativist ideology, for us, not all civilisations are equal. Those who defend humanity seem more advanced to us than those who deny it. Those who defend freedom, equality and brotherhood seem to us superior to those that accept tyranny, subjugation of women and social or ethnic hatred.

Gueant, known for his tough line on immigration, made the remarks on Saturday behind closed doors, but they quickly began circulating online over Twitter.

France, now secular but historically Catholic, has a network of ethnic and religious laws and codes, and Muslim and Jewish populations that are among the largest in Europe, and opposition Socialists were quickly on the attack, with a presidential election less than three months away.

Sarkozy, who is trailing Socialist challenger Francois Hollande in the polls, said the remarks were common sense. .

The interior minister said a civilisation, a regime (or) a society that does not give the same place and rights to both men and women did not have the same values. It's common sense, Sarkozy said in an interview with TV channel France 2.

Hollande, a social democrat tipped to win an election where Sarkozy is his main but as yet undeclared rival, tried to place himself above the bickering over Gueant's remarks, leaving the offensive to party colleagues.

I don't want to divide the French people or encourage one-upmanship. The state's role at all levels is not to agitate, to provoke or fuel fears, he told journalists.

Sarkozy is battling to catch up with Hollande in the polls, ahead of the two-round election on April 22 and May 6. An LH2 poll for Yahoo had Hollande winning 34 percent of the vote in the first round with Sarkozy getting 25.5 percent and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen third with 15 percent.

Le Pen has at times been snapping at Sarkozy's heels in opinion polls, raising the question of whether she might make it to a runoff against Hollande.

Hollande's camp accused Gueant of fishing for votes from the far right to help boost the president's flagging poll ratings.

It was premeditated, voluntary and intentional, said Hollande's election campaign chief, Pierre Moscovici. It would be good if Sarkozy disavowed him ... but he won't do it because he is on campaign, he said on LCI TV.

Gueant was unapologetic. I made common-sense remarks, self-evident comments to point out that not all civilisations are equal in light of our humanist values, Gueant said.

Some in Gueant's own camp kept their distance. He makes a better minister than ethnologist, said former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

I wouldn't have put it that way but I think the same thing, said Defence Minister Gerard Longuet.

(Reporting by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Brian Love and Tim Pearce)