French immigration fears cloud identity debate
President Sarkozy's right-wing government launched the debate last month, inviting ordinary citizens to explain what it means to be French on an Internet forum and at town hall meetings organised across the country.Paris -- President Nicolas Sarkozy insists it is a noble exercise in soul-searching about what defines Frenchness but the national identity debate gripping France has quickly exposed fears about immigration.
Sarkozy's right-wing government launched the debate last month, inviting ordinary citizens to explain what it means to be French on an Internet forum and at town hall meetings organised across the country.
On Tuesday, the debate goes to the National Assembly where deputies will provide their input before the introspection draws to a close on February 4 with a national conference allowing the government to take stock.
The initiative ignited controversy from the outset, with the left accusing Sarkozy of trying to woo far-right voters ahead of March regional elections by appealing to French pride and patriotism.
Struggling with low approval ratings, Sarkozy has defended the discussion about national identity, saying "this is a noble debate" and that those who opposed it are simply afraid of tackling complex issues.
A member of Sarkozy's party showed no fear when he told a local gathering last week that France had too many immigrants and that this problem had been swept under the carpet for too long.
"It's time we reacted because we are going to be eaten alive," said Andre Valentin, mayor of a small village in northern France. "There are already 10 million of them, 10 million who are getting paid to do nothing."
Immigration Minister Eric Besson, who is also the minister for national identity, stepped in and declared such remarks "unacceptable" within the government-sponsored debate.
He also announced that his ministry would from now on carefully monitor the posted comments on its identity debate website to remove contributions deemed racist or xenophobic.
These include such comments as "being France means being white. That's all" and "being French means learning to park your car in a garage to avoid having it torched" -- a reference to car burnings in the high-immigration suburbs.
France is home to Europe's largest Muslim minority and Islam now ranks as the nation's second religion, so opinion was rattled by the Swiss referendum vote to ban minaret construction.
Despite several local campaigns by the French far right, dozens of mosques are slated for construction in France, including a Grand Mosque in Marseille that will have a 25-metre (82-foot) minaret.
Next month, a parliamentary inquiry will produce a much-awaited report on whether to ban the full Islamic veil, and the "burqa debate" is providing yet another test of how far France is willing to go to accommodate Islam.
"This debate is being organised in a very unhealthy context," said Eugene-Henri More, the deputy mayor of the ethnically-mixed Paris suburb of La Courneuve.
"The idea is to come up with a model for being French, but who will define this model?" he asked. "It really seems to me that it's being organised to appease fears about immigration."
Among the questions raised by the debate's organisers are: Should France have "integration contracts" for immigrants imposing rules such as French language skills, and should students be required to sing the national anthem La Marseillaise at least once a year?
Booing La Marseillaise at soccer matches has become the signature form of protest by French immigrant youths.
The opposition Socialist Party is boycotting the debate, with leader Martine Aubry accusing Sarkozy of whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment and allowing the debate to become a platform for xenophobia.
As of last week, more than 40,000 comments had been posted on the debate website.