News

    France Opens National Identity Debate

    Multimedia

    Audio
    Lisa Bryant

    France's center-right government has launched a national debate about what it means to be French. The discussion on national identity is being described as a way for citizens to take stock of who they are and of France's place in the world. Critics argue it casts suspicion on immigrants and on French minorities.

    Many outsiders sum up "Frenchness" through a series of cliches - berets, baguettes, good cheese and wine.  But immigration has changed the face of  France. Some French Muslim women wear headscarves. The traditional North African dish, couscous, is a favorite here. Arab words like Toubib - or doctor - pepper the French language.

    So what does it mean to be French today? President Nicolas Sarkozy has tapped another French staple - the love of debate - to launch a three-month, national conversation on the subject. There's even an Internet site where Eric Besson, France's minister for immigration, integration and national identity, invites French to air their views.

    In a videotaped message on the Web site, Besson says the debate aims to examine French values - which include equality, fraternity, secularism and gender equality - and to sketch France's common future. Suggested topics for discussion include whether France should have integration contracts for immigrants applying for citizenship and whether students should be required to sing the French national anthem.

    But the debate about being French has sparked its own debate. Critics, including opposition politicians and rights groups, say it is tinged with the kind of nationalist sentiment spearheaded by France's far-right National Front party. They argue it casts unfair suspicion on immigrants, particularly those of Muslim origin.  The debate comes amid controversy over banning minarets in neighboring Switzerland and as the French government considers whether to ban Muslim women from wearing a face-covering veil in public.

    Even opposition politicians who support the debate - like French Socialist deputy Gaetan Gorce - have reservations.

    He says French people are anxious about the future of their country, so it's not absurd to discuss how to deal  with the subject. "I think we have to define more precisely who we are, what we want, what kind of influence we can exert now in Europe or in the world," he said.

    But Gorce believes the debate should far longer and more in-depth than what the government has in mind. He also says it is politically charged, since it comes ahead of March regional elections.

    Still, the controversy has not stopped French from attending debates taking place  in government buildings across the country. About 150 young people of all ethnic origins packed a small room at the French Immigration Ministry on Wednesday night, for a debate hosted by Minister Besson.

    One young man described being denied jobs at upscale French hotels, ostensibly because of his North African background. He said the only job he could find was as a janitor in a low-income Paris suburb.

    Another woman, of African origin, talked about the need for gender equality in France and the education problems faced by young immigrants.

    For his part, Besson told the audience the debate was not just about immigration, but also about the place of French citizens at home and in the world.

    But Besson said immigration is also a key element of the debate and French should not be afraid to discuss it. That sentiment is echoed by President Sarkozy, who says the government wants to promote tolerance and openness to immigrants - but that they must also respect France's values and heritage.

    One young jurist, who gave only her first name - Nadia - said she was glad she had attended Wednesday's debate. Nadia said she immigrated to France from her native Benin as an infant.

    Nadia said most immigrants try hard to fit into their new country. She said she worked hard to learn French and she embraces French values. But she said she still faces hostility. If she brushes past somebody in a bus, she is told to go back to her country. But, Nadia said, France is her country.

    Polls show French opinion is divided over the identity debate. Some consider it an election ploy. But other surveys show the majority of French believe it is a useful conversation.

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Tech Startups Showcase Wares at Amsterdam Conferencei
    X
    Serginho Roosblad
    May 30, 2016 5:11 PM
    More than 20,000 tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and lovers of digital technology came together in Amsterdam recently at the Next Web Conference to discuss the latest developments in digital technology, look to the future and, of course, to connect. In recent years, there has been an explosion of so-called startup businesses that have created devices and applications that have changed the way we live; but, as Serginho Roosblad reports for VOA, there are pitfalls for such startups as well.
    Video

    Video Tech Startups Showcase Wares at Amsterdam Conference

    More than 20,000 tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and lovers of digital technology came together in Amsterdam recently at the Next Web Conference to discuss the latest developments in digital technology, look to the future and, of course, to connect. In recent years, there has been an explosion of so-called startup businesses that have created devices and applications that have changed the way we live; but, as Serginho Roosblad reports for VOA, there are pitfalls for such startups as well.
    Video

    Video US Military's Fallen Honored With Flags

    Memorial Day is a long weekend for most Americans. For some, it is the unofficial start of summer -- local swimming pools open and outdoor grilling season begins. But Memorial Day remains true to its origins -- a day to remember the U.S. military's fallen.
    Video

    Video Rolling Thunder Rolls Into Washington

    The Rolling Thunder caravan of motorcycles rolled into Washington Sunday, to support the U.S. military on the country's Memorial Day weekend
    Video

    Video A New Reading Program Pairs Kids with Dogs

    Dogs, it is said, are man's best friend. What some researchers have discovered is that they can also be a friend to a struggling reader. A group called Intermountain Therapy Animals trains dogs to help all kinds of kids with reading problems — from those with special needs to those for whom English is a second language. Faiza Elmasry has more on the New York chapter of R.E.A.D., or Reading Education Assistance Dogs, in this piece narrated by Faith Lapidus.
    Video

    Video Fan Base Grows for Fictional Wyoming Sheriff Longmire

    Around the world, the most enduring symbol of the U.S. is that of the cowboy. A very small percentage of Americans live in Western rural areas, and fewer still are cowboys. But the fascination with the American West is kept alive by such cultural offerings as “Longmire,” a series of books and TV episodes about a fictional Wyoming sheriff. VOA’s Greg Flakus recently spoke with Longmire’s creator, Craig Johnson, and filed this report from Houston.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora