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Immigration minister launches great debate on 'national identity'

Text by Thibault LIEURADE

Latest update : 2009-11-03

France's minister of immigration and national identity, Eric Besson (left of centre), has launched a debate on French national identity. The opposition, however, has denounced the move as a purely political exercise ahead of March regional elections.

It’s a big day for Eric Besson. As France’s minister of immigration and national identity, Besson will spend the next three months encouraging and monitoring a debate on French national identity that he officially launched on Monday. Certain controversial ideas have already been floated, such as requiring schools to teach the national anthem.

Besson has reportedly sent an information kit to regional officials who have been charged with organising public meetings on the issue. The ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party’s parliamentary groups have also been invited to take part. And Besson’s team has launched an Internet site to gather the varied opinions of the French public on the issue, some of which are likely to be quite controversial.

But those within the political community did not wait for the official launch of the debate to make their opinions heard, with both the left and the right flooding Besson’s office with criticism soon after the debate was first announced on October 25.

The left-of-centre opposition has denounced the whole debate as a political exercise designed to drum up support ahead of March 2010 regional elections. “(French President) Nicolas Sarkozy wants to shore up his support among those who support the far-right National Front,” Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party’s spokesman, told Europe 1 radio.

To prevent the government from gaining the upper hand on a topic so close to the hearts of its supporters, the anti-immigration National Front has criticised the UMP for not going far enough with the debate. Marine Le Pen, second in command at the National Front, on Wednesday requested an interview at the presidential palace.

In announcing his initiative, Besson has also attracted his share of criticism from the ruling party. High commissioner Martin Hirsch called the debate “100% political” and former minister of housing Christine Boutin denounced it as “very risqué”.

Results moved up

Having suffered in the past few weeks from controversies surrounding nepotism charges related to his son, Jean, and the suspected paedophilia tendencies of his minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, Sarkozy has decided to steer the electorate onto safer topics: taxes, security and immigration.  

In a bid to address critics who say the debate is merely an electoral ploy, Besson moved up the date for releasing the results by three weeks to February 4. He told Le Figaro daily that, in doing so, he wished to distance the release of the results somewhat from the March regional polls.

According to a CSA poll published by Le Parisien, 60 percent of those surveyed say they favour having a debate on the subject of national identity. But according to a separate poll by BVA-Canal+ published on Thursday, 64 percent think that the debate is, “above all”, a move geared toward mobilising right-wing voters ahead of regional elections.

Date created : 2009-11-02


    Poll shows most French back 'National identity' debate

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