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France Opens National Identity Debate

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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.

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