DECEMBER 16 2009 18:01h
French President Nicolas Sarkozy faced calls Wednesday to scrap his debate on national identity.
PARIS, December 16, 2009 (AFP) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy faced calls Wednesday to scrap his debate on national identity after a minister's blunt remarks about young Muslims touched off a furore.
Families Minister Nadine Morano told a local gathering called to discuss what it means to be French that she wanted young Muslims to "love France, find a job, not speak slang nor wear their caps back to front".
Anti-racism groups and the Socialist opposition quickly condemned her comments and said it was time to end a debate that they see as fomenting anti-foreigner and anti-Muslim sentiment in France.
"Enough," said former Socialist leader Francois Hollande. "This debate was badly defined, poorly chosen from the start, and now it is going to the dogs."
Doubts emerged within Sarkozy's camp with Higher Education Minister Valerie Pecresse saying there was a need to "shift the focus toward concrete proposals" to prevent the debate from further spinning out of control.
Sarkozy's long-time rival in the governing right-wing party, former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, also said it was time to bring the curtain down on this "bad debate".
"During these times of economic crisis, we have better things to do than allow ourselves to be divided over such an important issue," Villepin said.
After initially supporting the government-sponsored debate, Le Monde newspaper joined calls for burying it, writing in an editorial that "the great debate on national identity has turned sour".
Le Monde called on Sarkozy to acknowledge that he had made a "mistake and correct it".
But the government responded with a flat-out refusal, with a spokesman saying that scrapping the debate was "out of the question".
"We wanted this debate to be held in a decentralised manner, and that there be no taboo subjects. We will carry it to its end," said spokesman Luc Chatel.
Launched with great fanfare a month ago, the government is asking citizens from across the country to explain what it means to be French on an Internet forum and at town hall meetings.
The initiative ignited controversy from the outset, with the left accusing Sarkozy of trying to woo far-right voters ahead of March regional elections by appealing to French pride and patriotism.
The debate is scheduled to end on February 4 with a national conference during which the government is to take stock of the various views submitted and make recommendations.
Sarkozy has defended the initiative as a "noble" exercise to define Frenchness but leading intellectuals such as the winner of this year's Goncourt literature prize, Marie Ndiaye, have branded it xenophobic and called for a boycott.
On Wednesday, Morano defended her remarks and said those who criticised her "did not want to open their eyes to the integration problems that our young people in the suburbs are having".
The controversy followed an outcry two weeks ago after a right-wing mayor said France had too many immigrants and that this problem had been swept under the carpet for too long.
"It's time we reacted because we are going to be eaten alive," said Andre Valentin, mayor of a small village in northern France. "There are already 10 million of them, 10 million who are getting paid to do nothing."
France has been engaged in a long-running debate about how far it is willing to go to accommodate Islam, which now ranks as the nation's second religion with some six million Muslims.
France's debate was given urgency by a Swiss referendum vote to ban minaret construction that came as a French parliamentary panel held hearings on whether to ban the full Islamic veil.
Parliament's "burqa commission" and the Swiss ban on minarets have shifted the focus from broader issues of identity to French fears about immigration and Islam.