Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has declared that a public debate on France's national identity is "necessary" and that not talking about it would be "dangerous." The opposition has criticized the debates as being divisive and a political ploy.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has declared that a public debate on France's national identity is "necessary" and that not talking about it would be "dangerous." The opposition has criticized the debates as being divisive and a political ploy. Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has launched a series of town hall-style debates on the question of French identity. He says the meetings will help to clarify and reaffirm the nation's values in an age of mass immigration.
But critics say the debates are divisive and call them a thinly veiled ploy to win over right-wing voters.
Hundreds of debates across the country are posing the question of what it means to be French to businessmen, local politicians and regular citizens.
At a recent debate in Nanterre, a working-class suburb of Paris, the local mayor led a group of about 45 people in discussing French history, culture and the importance of symbols like the flag.
Ultimately, the government plans to produce a handful of policy proposals from the outcome of these meetings. And Sarkozy says he hopes the national soul-searching might help answer questions such as whether people should be obligated to sing the national anthem and how to share French values with immigrants.
But if Sarkozy thought an examination of Frenchness would bring people together, the debates are having the opposite effect. They have ignited controversy and exposed both fears and raw nerves. The opposition Socialists accuse Sarkozy of whipping up xenophobic sentiment.
It wasn't long before hints of such sentiment arose during the gathering in Nanterre.
"I feel like the French republic is retreating in certain areas," said one man who stood up to speak. "Our kids aren't even served pork in school cafeterias anymore."
The speaker, David Racheline, turned out to be a member of France's far-right National Front party. Most French people think the debates are a political stunt by Sarkozy to garner votes from the far right. But Racheline said the tactic won't work.
"Mr. Sarkozy got elected on certain ideas, and he's betrayed them all. We've never had more immigrants than now. The economy is in shambles. We have no national security, and we're the lap dogs of the Americans once again. That is why he is so unpopular," Racheline said.
As the debate in Nanterre swung from the glories of the French Revolution to the darker days of the Vichy regime's collaboration with the Nazis, tempers flared.
Many Muslims showed up at the debate. France has Western Europe's largest Muslim population and has long searched for ways to accommodate Islam without undermining its cherished separation of church and state. But Muslims say they are stigmatized by these debates, which they say highlight who is not French rather than underlining a common identity.
Mohamed El Madani grew up in rural France. "It's hard when you see that out of France, you are seen like French, and in France, you're not French," he said.
El Madani's parents moved from Morocco 40 years ago to work in French factories. But he said he has always been treated like an outsider.
"You know, the symbol of France is liberte, egalite, fraternite. We don't practice that. I'm not equal with other French people. I'm not," he said.
A schoolteacher got up to speak about the importance of secularism. The separation of church and state seems to be one point everyone at the debate in Nanterre agreed upon. A Muslim headscarf ban in public schools has largely been accepted because most Muslims also embrace the French republic's secular ideals.
While the debate on national identity is raging in parliament, the French public looks on in amusement and horror as every day brings a new and more outrageous revelation from some corner of France. The mayor of one small town was caught on camera making an anti-immigrant remark.
"We're being eaten alive," he said. "There are already 10 million of them who are getting paid to do nothing."
And one of Sarkozy's own ministers said she expected young Muslims not to wear their baseball caps backward and to use correct grammar when they speak.
Sarkozy has condemned such deviations but insists that the debates are a priority.
"France was built by immigrants, and people who come here are welcome," Sarkozy said. "But they have to respect our values. This is a noble debate that will help us to avoid what happened in Switzerland with the minarets."
Sarkozy said the Swiss referendum to ban minarets is proof that many people in Europe feel threatened by the growth of Islam.
"We must speak about this together," he said. "If it is kept hidden, the sentiment could nourish a terrible rancor."