French Minister Defends National Identity Debate

French minister defends national identity debate

The French government has claimed its attempts to define “national identity” have overwhelming public support despite accusations it has exploited xenophobic fears.

By Henry Samuel in Paris
Published: 6:40PM GMT 04 Jan 2010

President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a “great debate” in November, calling it a “noble” meditation on what it means to be French.

But now he is facing increasingly vocal calls including from within his own camp to scrap what critics say has become a dangerous slanging match over immigration and a perilous attempt to woo back the hard Right vote three months ahead of regional elections.

On Monday, the man Mr Sarkozy tasked with leading the debate trumpeted it as an “immense popular success”.

Eric Besson, the minister of immigration and national identity insisted that the debate had not “veered off course” into caricature nor was it solely “focused on immigration and Islam”.

He announced the results of a TNS Sofres poll he ordered suggesting that 80 per cent of French felt national identity was “weakening”.

“The vast majority of contributions are perfectly respectful of our republican values,” he said in a press conference.

Mr Besson was responding to claims that a website set up to encourage discussion has turned into an immigrant-bashing forum. About a fifth of the 50,000 entries had to be erased. “They're not publishable,” Mr Sarkozy was reported to have complained.

The president called for calm in a televised New Year's address. He said: “Let us be able to debate without tearing ourselves apart, with insulting each other, without losing unity.”

Disquiet has grown at what many regard as a threatening presence of Islam in France home to around six million Muslims. This was compounded by Switzerland's recent vote to ban the building of minarets on mosques.

Right-wing MPs are now promoting a ban on the burka, while another law put before parliament last month would outlaw the waving of foreign flags at weddings in town halls.

Mr Besson insisted that only a third of comments on his website referred to immigration and Islam. However, tensions were palpable at a recent meeting in Nanterre, a suburb west of Paris, one of around 300 “national identity debates” held around the country.

Mohamed el Madani, a well-spoken French Muslim stood up to address the crowd of 100 from the suburb a mix of big business and multi-ethnic high-rise estates.

“I grew up in the Auvergne (central France). When I see President Sarkozy telling the French to show respect for immigrants who have arrived, and for newcomers to do likewise, I say: 'I have not arrived: I'm here',” said the IT manager.

“Abroad everyone takes me for a Parisian. Here I'm a North African, a bizarre bearded man. People cross the street when they see me coming.”

An angry voice chimed in from the back of the hall. David Rachline, a National Front member, grabbed the microphone. “You say that but why is it that pork is no longer served in our school canteens, why is that Muslim women refuse to be treated by male doctors in our hospitals and push for single-sex swimming pool hours?” he exclaimed.

The opposition Socialists claim Mr Sarkozy is trying to pander to the National Front electorate ahead of regional elections in March. They want the whole exercise scrapped.

Three former right-wing prime ministers have voiced serious doubts. Alain Jupp called it “pointless” while Jean-Pierre Raffarin said it risked becoming a “caf counter chat” devoid of “intellectual rigour”. Some 45,000 people have signed an online petition calling for it to stop.

Yet the president has made it clear he has no intention of pulling the plug on the exercise. “Am I making up the 'ghettoisation' of certain city districts, the rise of a form of racism in others, violence in yet others, the absence of diversity in French elites?” he recently asked.

In a tribune in the Le Figaro newspaper, some 25 right-wing MPs said the debate is healthy and must go on. “To leave (it) solely to nationalists and xenophobes would be playing into their hands once again,” they wrote.

Mr Besson said: “Debate doesn't boost extremism, taboos do.” He will hand in this month a “synthesis” of the debate to the president, who will decide whether new legislation is required to better protect French identity.


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