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Latest update : 2010-02-05

National identity: Who is really French?

What does it mean to be French? For the past few months, France has been asking itself that very question. But the debate over national identity launched by President Sarkozy now appears to be deepening racial tensions present for years. To get to the heart of the matter, our reporter James André went to Marseille, the most ethnically diverse city in France.

Since the 2nd of November, the French Public has been invited by the government to reflect on what it means to be French today. It’s the “Grand Debate about National Identity”, instigated by President Nicolas Sarkozy and driven by Eric Besson, the minister in charge of immigration and national identity. A series of clumsy statements and reckless declarations has narrowed the debate towards the themes of immigration and the place of Islam in France.

We decided to go to the Belsunce neighbourhood in Marseille and meet the different communities who form this multicoloured bit of France, that locals have nicknamed Algiers 2.

The debate is taking place amidst the rise of a certain form of Islamophobia across Europe. Just after the Swiss voted to ban minarets, a survey showed that 57% of French people would have voted the same way, and that 47% were in favour of banning mosques.

A few weeks later, young people of Algerian origin took to the streets with flags to celebrate Algeria’s qualification for the FIFA World Cup. In several large French cities, including Marseille, these demonstrations started out as joy but turned to riots.

This is the background against which the debate is taking place. Its outcome will be formally presented on the eve of France’s regional elections.

As we meet different Belsunce district residents, it appears that the debate is considered to be a threat by immigrants in general, and Muslims in particular.

By James ANDRE

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