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France President Sarkozy drops national identity debate

France President Nicolas Sarkozy had sought to use a national identity debate to heal social rifts and propel himself to victory in the polls. But three months on, the debate has been dropped and Sarkozy's standing harmed.

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In this photo, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech on the future of the rural areas in Moree, France, Tuesday.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

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The French Elysee is quietly dropping one of its more cherished and controversial projects – a "national identity" debate that went haywire almost immediately and threatens to harm President Nicolas Sarkozy in crucial elections this March.

According to a French ruling party script set last November, the nation would discuss on the Internet, then in town halls and cities, enduring French values like liberty, equality, and fraternity, and the Gallic genius behind the works of Hugo and Camus.

The conversation would lead to agreement on what it means to be French, at a time when immigration anxieties are high and just a few years after rioting in poor, immigrant-dominated neighborhoods around Paris shook the nation.

By early February, the plan went, President Sarkozy would give a triumphal speech bringing it all together in time for the French to vote.

Instead, the debate became a lightning rod for fears of immigration and Islam, a format for extreme-right ranting, and was ridiculed by media – at a time when conservative French lawmakers were also pushing a law to ban the burqa, or full-length Muslim veil, in France, which may happen this spring.

Now Sarkozy’s speech is no longer scheduled, and Prime Minister Francoise Fillon yesterday ended the public debate by announcing small new patriotic rules: French flags will fly on schools, the 1789 declaration of the rights of man will be posted in every classroom – and a commission that will study it all further.

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