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.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs