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France Tackles National Identity Crisis

France's government on Monday will study ways to bolster the nation's identity, culled from three months of sometimes noisy and occasionally racist debate on what it means to be French in an increasingly globalized world.

Immigration Minister Eric Besson, who initiated the debate, submitted proposals based on the 350 local meetings held around France since early November.

It was not clear whether any firm steps would be taken after the government meeting. Besson said Friday that several concrete measures on better integrating immigrants can be expected, and that his proposed initiatives also concern fighting discrimination and building a European identity.

French newspapers reported that among the proposals being discussed Monday are a special oath for new French citizens and a "young citizen's card" for schoolchildren.

The national identity debates often focused on France's growing immigrant population, and racist comments occasionally popped up on the interactive Immigration Ministry Web site dedicated to the debate, though were quickly removed.

The debate has divided public opinion in France, with some critics claiming it was a ploy by the governing conservative party for more extreme right votes before March regional elections. Numerous intellectuals have opposed it and, minus a few exceptions, the rival Socialist party refused to participate.

The meetings in towns and cities around France coincided with a debate on whether to ban the face-covering Muslim veil, a subject that overlaps with immigration issues.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon has said the national discussion on France's identity was "perfectly necessary" and now wants the full government to weigh in on the results.

"Every minister must say what he thinks of the debate and what he thinks of the proposals," Fillon said last week on Europe-1 radio. They will be called on to "select those which merit being put into place and which justify rules or laws," he said.

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, Besson justified the debate with another poll, conducted for the Immigration 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.

While 75 percent of those polled for the ministry said they were proud or very proud of being French, a full 25 percent were not particularly proud.

The poll for the ministry by the TNS-Sofres firm consulted 1,000 people, the same number as in the previous poll. Margins of error were not provided but in a poll of that size it would be plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Besson wants to continue the debate, perhaps in a different form, through the end of the year.

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