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National debate on French identity ends amid immigration controversy

France's debate on national identity ended amidst a backdrop of immigrant tensions. While some saw the discussion series as a vital public discourse, many felt it served as a platform for xenophobic comments.

A woman in front of the eiffel tower

What makes someone French?

A three month series of town hall debates on national identity and the essence of being French ended on Monday. Prime Minister Francois Fillon is to meet with other ministers to study the results before French President Nicholas Sarkozy decides which measures should be adopted.

Eric Besson, France's immigration minister.

France's immigration minister called the debates a success

The debates, which took place in communities across France, were meant to serve as a forum to discuss the core of French identity.

"We must reaffirm the values of national identity and pride in being French," Eric Besson, the Minister for Immigration and National Identity, said in November as he introduced the event.

Immigrants object

Ultimately, the debates saw the introduction of several new proposals, including compelling school children to sing the national anthem, prohibiting the full Islamic veil in public spaces, and creating a stricter 'citizenship contract' for would-be French citizens.

However, many criticized the events for fostering anti-immigration sentiments towards Muslims, rather than defining French values. Opponents of President Nicholas Sarkozy said he used the series to pander to the right and rouse political support from conservatives for the upcoming elections in March.

A flag in every classroom

The French immigration minister, Eric Besson, called the debates a success. A website created to facilitate the discussion online received about 55,000 contributions, according to the ministry. Many of the recommendations from the debates, such as the hanging of French flags in classrooms, are expected to be enacted by summer.

A burning building surrounded by rioters

In 2005, racial tensions triggered riots in the suburbs of Paris

France is home to about 6 million Muslims and prides itself on its secular values, including separation of church and states. However, the government is frequently criticized for its policies toward Arab and black minorities, many of whom are French citizens.

Mosques vandalized

The debates, which began in November, have intensified in recent months against a backdrop of unrest among many who feel the debates are inciting anti-Muslim sentiments. On Monday swastikas and racial slurs were painted on the walls of a mosque in the town of Saint-Etienne. In December, Nazi slogans and pig feet were found in December in a mosque in Southern France.

Editor: Rob Turner

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