France 'national identity' debate
The French government is asking the nation what it means to be French, in what is being billed as a "Great Debate" against a backdrop of ethnic tension.
All French citizens are in principle invited to take part in a series of meetings across the country, lasting until January 31.
The country has seen smouldering unrest in immigrant-heavy suburbs, a movement to ban full Muslim veils, and questions over whether France's essential identity is vanishing in a complex world.
France has one of the highest proportions of immigrants in Europe and endures recurrent tensions over religion, yet champions the notion of a consensual "Frenchness" anchored in secularism.
The country prides itself on enshrining liberty, equality, fraternity, but faces constant claims of injustice, mainly from Arab and black minorities, many of them French citizens, which saw thousands of their youths rampage through housing projects in 2005.
"We're in a real denial of reality. Our world is cracking silently," said Jean-Pierre Door, a mayor who spoke at the first debate, held at the Immigration Ministry. He said the dialogue was breaking long-held taboos.
The government-ordered soul-searching over the French identity is an effort to clarify and reaffirm the nation's values, which President Nicolas Sarkozy says have been "forgotten and sometimes denied". France's immigration minister Eric Besson launched the Great Debate earlier this month with a website where citizens can write about what they think it means to be French.
More than 32,000 contributions were posted in the first two weeks, according to the ministry.
Opposition Socialists equate the national identity debate with a political stunt meant in part to garner votes of the anti-immigration far-right National Front ahead of March regional elections. Intellectuals and philosophers are divided, as are many citizens, saying it will fan xenophobia and stigmatise non-white French.
Talking points include French history, culture, religion or language. Ultimately, they are meant to address a handful of proposals such as the meaning of national symbols like the flag or whether youths should be obliged to sing the national anthem at least once a year - and how to share values with immigrant citizens.