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We turn now to France, where 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.

Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: What does it mean to be French? That question is being put to businessmen, local politicians and regular citizens in hundreds of debates across the country like this one underway in Nanterre, a working-class suburb of Paris.

Unidentified Man: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Led by the mayor, the group of about 45 people is discussing French history, culture and the importance of symbols like the flag. Ultimately, the government is planning 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 like: Should people be obligated to sing the national anthem? And how do you 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's not long before we get a whiff of that here in Nanterre.

Mr. DAVID RACHELINE (Member, National Front Party): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: I feel like the French republic is retreating in certain areas, says one man who stands up to speak. Our kids aren't even served pork in school cafeterias anymore.

The speaker, David Racheline, turns 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 says the tactic won't work.

Mr. RACHELINE: (Through translator) 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 lapdogs of the Americans once again. That's why he is so unpopular.

BEARDSLEY: As the debate swings from the glories of the French Revolution to the darker days of the Vichy regime's collaboration with the Nazis, tempers flare.

(Soundbite of discussion in French)

BEARDSLEY: Many Muslims have also shown up tonight. 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.

Mr. MOHAMMED EL MADANI: It's hard when you see that out of France, you are seen like French, and in France, you're not French.

BEARDSLEY: That's Mohammed El Madani. He grew up in rural France. His parents came from Morocco 40 years ago to work in French factories, but El Madani says he's always been treated like an outsider.

Mr. EL MADANI: You know, the symbol of France is liberte, egalite, fraternite, and we don't practice that. I'm not equal with other French people. I'm not.

Unidentified Woman: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: A schoolteacher gets up to speak about the importance of secularism. The separation of church and state seems to be one point everyone here agrees 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 backwards and to use correct grammar when they spoke. Sarkozy has condemned such deviations, but insists the debates are a priority.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Through translator) France was built by immigrants and people who come here are welcome, 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.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy says 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.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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