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France's Sarkozy launches controversial national identity debate

President Nicolas Sarkozy's government started a 'what is French?' website today. Critics say the national identity debate is intended to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment ahead of national elections in the spring.

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What does it mean to be French?

As part of a long-simmering question over France's direction, the government of Nicolas Sarkozy today started a website asking citizens to give input on French values, patriotism, and their thoughts on the rise of minorities here.

It's Step 1 of an ambitious national "grand debate" on "identity" that aims to span tiny French hamlets and city districts over the next four months, ending just ahead of a national by-election next spring.

The project, run out of the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, opens a politically fraught but substantial debate that Mr. Sarkozy first broached in 2007: How to define French tradition at a time when France faces burgeoning African, Arab, and Asian immigrants, and other changes in a globalizing world.

France has not conducted such an "identity" discussion in a top down manner before, especially on such a hot-button topic. (Although in 1999, 36,000 French mayors trod similar ground before voting for a new model for Marianne, the symbol of the French republic)

The "What is French?" website offers civic wisdom by some of the French greats – Montesquieu, Hugo, Malraux. But it also puts forward questions seen as leading, such as, "Why is the question of national identity provoking uneasiness among some intellectuals, sociologists, or historians?"

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