French Government Seeks To Boost National Identity

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

PARIS (AP) - The French flag will be hoisted at every school in France and the national anthem sung by students at least once a year as part of government efforts to instill in citizens a sense of pride in being French, Prime Minister Francois Fillon announced Tuesday.

Language training and instruction on gender equality are foreseen for newly arrived immigrants, while new citizens will attend a solemn ceremony and sign a pact listing the duties that go with being French once a law is adjusted to make that possible.

Many of the measures are more symbolic than concrete, but all are the fruit of an often noisy government-sponsored nationwide debate on the French identity that on occasion plunged into racial slurs, often directed at France's estimated 5 million Muslims.

The debates in 350 locations around the country aimed at bolstering France's national identity in a globalized world and in an increasingly diverse nation that is proud by nature but afraid of losing its bearings.

France has long fought to preserve its language, but while previous governments focused on protecting French from the onslaught of English, the current government wants newly arrived immigrants to be able to communicate.

The discussions have coincided with an informal debate in progress on face-covering Muslim headscarves that, later this year, likely will be banned, at least in public services such as hospitals, post offices and public transport.

Fillon had convoked government ministers to approve the national identity measures. Many were proposed by Immigration Minister Eric Besson, who sponsored the initiative.

At a news conference, the prime minister spent much of his time defending the debate that critics contend was a political ploy to lure the extreme right into the camp of governing conservatives before March regional elections.

Fillon called the debate "vital" and "essential" and announced that it would not only continue through the remainder of President Nicolas Sarkozy's five-year term, which ends in 2012, but that new measures to shore up the French identity would be put in place along the way. The measures announced are "but a step on the road that must lead to strengthening our national pact," Fillon said.

"Beyond the political jousting and unjustified criticism ... the question of the identity of France is no longer taboo," Fillon said.

Sarkozy, who touted the question of France's national identity while campaigning for the presidency, is to address the debate in April, the prime minister said.

Minus a few exceptions, the Socialist Party boycotted the debates.

Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon said before the announcement that the measures in the works were mostly devoid of
substance. He said the government gathering "resembles a first-class funeral" for the identity debates. He claimed that the exercise divided more than united the country.

A poll published Feb. 1 by Obea-Infraforces showed that more than one French in two were critical of the debate and nearly 62 percent said it did not help them "define what it is to be French."

However, the immigration minister justified the debate with another poll, conducted for the ministry and made public Friday, that showed that 74 percent of those polled think France's national identity is weakening, with 30 percent attributing that to immigration and 18 percent to cultural and ethnic issues.

The series of measures announced focuses on youth and on immigrants. Schools will be obliged to hang the French flag and post a copy of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 in each classroom.

Schools also are to upgrade civics lessons starting in the fall. All school children are also to be given a chance to sing the national anthem at least once a year, not necessarily in class.

Immigrants, the other central theme, will be obliged to learn French - and take additional lessons if their progress is slow - in order to get their residence cards renewed. A test measuring knowledge of French values is to be taken at the end of a training day that is already part of an integration contract for immigrants.

Gaining French citizenship is to become a solemn event with a special ceremony at which candidates will sign a pact pledging respect for French values and laws. A law already on the books must be modified to put this measure in place.

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