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France

PM hands 'national identity' debate over to committee

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-02-09

Prime Minister François Fillon (left) said an "experts committee" would take over the debate on French national identity, bringing an end to months of public debate on the tricky and divisive issue.

Wrapping up months of public debate on the sticky issue of French national identity at a specially convened cabinet meeting Monday, French Prime Minister François Fillon announced a set of initiatives aimed at “deepening” the discussion on what it means to be French. 

Speaking to reporters at the prime minister’s office, the Matignon, in Paris after a two-hour meeting Monday, Fillon said he would recommend the creation of a civic guide for young people and more civics education in schools.
 
Flanked by French Immigration Minister Eric Besson, who initiated the debate, and Education Minister Luc Chatel, Fillon also proposed the formation of an “experts committe” — made up of politicians and historians — to continue pondering an issue that has divided public opinion in France.
 
Reporting from the Matignon, FRANCE 24’s politics editor Marc Perelman noted that many of the measures announced Monday were more “symbolic” than “substantive”. The main message, he added, was that “the identity debate in its present form is over”.
 
The national identity debate was launched by President Nicolas Sarkozy, in conjunction with Besson, last October, and immediately gave rise to a flurry of conflicting opinions over whether such a debate was necessary.
 
The government launched a website to collect opinions on the topic and invited the public to participate in town hall style national identity debates, some 350 of which have taken place across the country over the past three months.
 
Debating identity and the burqa
 
Although opposition parties dismissed the discussion as a cynical ploy by the ruling UMP party to drum up a nationalist fervour ahead of the March 14-21 regional elections, the identity issue quickly narrowed down to a discussion centred on two main themes: France’s immigration policies and the practice of Islam in France. The discussions coincided with a debate on whether to ban the burqa or niqab — the all-enveloping Muslim veil for women — in France.
 
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, estimated at between five and six million.

Sarkozy sent some tempers flaring when he announced that the burqa was “not welcome” in a secular France and proclaimed his support of legislation to outlaw it.
 
 
The burqa debate gained new traction last week, when Besson announced that he had signed a decree rejecting an unidentified man’s request for French citizenship after it became known that the man insisted his wife cover herself with the head-to-toe garment.
 
A Feb. 2 statement from Besson’s office said that during the citizenship review process, it became clear that the man, whose nationality has not been revealed, “forced his wife to wear the full veil, thus depriving her of freedom of movement with her face exposed, and rejecting the principles of secularism and equality between men and women”. 
 
A parliamentary report the week before had called for a ban on wearing the full veil in some public institutions — including schools, hospitals, government offices and on public transport — saying that it posed an “unacceptable” challenge to French values.
 
The French government is now seeking legal advice before drafting new legislation that would outlaw the full-body veil. Fillon has asked the State Council, France’s highest administrative court, to review the legal aspects of imposing a ban on the veil that would prove “as wide and effective as possible”, and to submit its findings by the end of March.

 

Date created : 2010-02-08

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