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Sarkozy's identity debate 'stirs up' xenophobia

The French government claimed yesterday that its attempts to define "national identity" had overwhelming public support, despite accusations that it was exploiting xenophobia.

President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a "great debate" in November, calling it a "noble" meditation on what it means to be French.

Now he is facing increasingly vocal calls to scrap what critics say has become a slanging match over immigration.

Yesterday, the man Mr Sarkozy asked to lead the debate trumpeted it as an "immense popular success".

Eric Besson, the minister of immigration and national identity, announced the results of a poll, suggesting that 80pc of the French felt national identity was "weakening".

Responding to claims that a website set up to encourage discussion had turned into an immigrant-bashing forum, he said: "The vast majority of contributions are perfectly respectful of our republican values."

About a fifth of the 50,000 entries have had to be erased. "They're not publishable," Mr Sarkozy was reported to have complained.

Disquiet has grown at what many regard as a threatening presence of Islam in France, which is home to about six million Muslims. Right-wing MPs want a ban on the burka and on waving foreign flags at weddings in town halls.

Mr Besson insisted that only a third of comments on his website referred to immigration and Islam.

At a recent meeting in Nanterre, a suburb west of Paris, one of about 300 "national identity debates" held throughout the country, Mohamed el Madani, a French Muslim who works as an IT consultant, stood up to say: "I grew up in the Auvergne (central France). When I see President Sarkozy telling the French to show respect for immigrants who have arrived . . . I say: 'I have not arrived: I'm here.'

"Abroad everyone takes me for a Parisian. Here I'm a North African, a bizarre bearded man. People cross the street when they see me coming."

Mr Besson will give a "synthesis" of the debate to the president this month, who will decide whether new legislation is required to better protect French identity. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent