It seemed like a good idea at the time–a website where the French could take part in a debate about their national identity.
But Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s hopes for a civilised exchange of views have been dashed.
Thousands of racist contributions have been posted with the general theme that foreigners should go home.
‘France has become an African colony in a way which cannot be reversed,’ reads one, while another says: ‘Before France had colonies, now it’s been colonised itself.’
Others read: ‘Nobody in France asked to be invaded by strangers’, ‘Being French is to be born in France to two French parents’, and ‘Immigrants who want to impose their lifestyles on us should go home.’
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon today defended the debate, giving an impassioned speech on the subject of ‘what it means to be French’ at a Paris think-tank.
He was standing in for President Nicolas Sarkozy who bailed out citing scheduling difficulties as the debate was turning sour.
‘To refuse this debate and stigmatise the idea that the French people have a unique identity amounts to leaving the field open to extremists,’ Mr Fillon said.
He was echoing Sarkozy’s view that traditional parties like the ruling UMP need to reclaim the subject of patriotic pride from the anti-immigrant National Front, which has long presented itself as the champion of a ‘true France’.
A spokesman for immigration minister Eric Besson said the overtly racist comments were ‘inexcusable’, but other negative views were all part of the democratic debate.
The spokesman added: ‘Two weeks ago we were criticised for censoring people, and today we’re criticised for respecting a large diversity of opinions.’
But Yazid Sabeg, the commissioner for diversity and equality, said he ‘deplored’ the terms of the debate opened by Mr Besson’s site, adding: ‘national identity is a dangerous debate. One has to give the debate the dignity and depth it deserves.’
All French citizens were invited to take part in Mr Sarkozy’s Great Debate on national identity, which is set to last until the end of January next year.
Racial tension has been rife in recent years, with riots in high immigration suburbs, fears about Islamic terrorism, attempts to ban Muslim veils, and fears that the Gallic identify is disappearing in the global economy.
France has one of the highest proportions of immigrants in Europe, as well as the largest Muslim population of around five million.
Mr Sarkozy said it was important for everyone to discuss their identity because what it meant to be French was ‘forgotten and sometimes denied’.
Opposition Socialists have argued that the national identity debate is a political stunt aimed at winning the support of the far-right National Front ahead of regional elections in March.
Intellectuals and philosophers have also been among those saying the debate encourages xenophobia and racism.