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To be French

Gavin Hewitt | 09:34 UK time, Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Eric Besson meetingLa Courneuve, a suburb of Paris, comes with a reputation, and it is not good. It is one of the banlieues. And they, too, have reputations. They are places of trouble, of seething resentment, of alienation, of car-burnings, of clashes with police, of high-rise dense public housing, of recent immigrants. They are also places of dedicated community workers and well-educated students, third-generation French people who often feel excluded from mainstream France.

All of these thoughts crowded into my mind as we arrived at La Cite des 4,000. There were riots here in 2005 and this was the area that Nicholas Sarkozy, when he was interior minister, suggested should be "cleaned with a power hose".

We were there for a visit by the controversial immigration minister, Eric Besson. He has launched a debate on what it means to be French. Even the community workers, who had organised a meeting, only knew an hour beforehand that the minister was attending. He crept into a library insisting "I have nothing to fear, just an intrusion of people who want to disturb the debate". It is also true that his national identity campaign is feared and resented in many immigrant communities.

There were about 40 people in the room, many with backgrounds in the Magreb or West Africa. Some were community leaders. The dangers of the national debate were immediately apparent. Suspicions were everywhere. "One has the impression," said one young man, "of being poison... less than nothing."

Eric Besson, like other politicians, knows he is on to something. There is anxiety, not just in France, about societies changing, of known worlds disappearing. He has suggested that La Marseillaise should be sung at first division football matches and that newcomers take citizen oaths.

Yesterday, hemmed in by cameras and doubting faces, the immigration minister said: "France is not a people, nor a language, nor a territory, nor a religion; it is a conglomeration of peoples who want to live together. There is no French-born, there is a blending of France."

Few would take exception to that. He speaks of a passion for France, of the concept of a nation, of its republican traditions, of the importance of the nation state.

After just over an hour it was over. It was not much of a debate - more a series of statements. Some of those present were pleased the minister had come. We all went outside and stood around in a pale afternoon with the police presence (which is rare unless there is trouble) disappearing.

Other countries, in their own ways, are debating this issue. Politicians sense the mood. They detect that the public want new arrivals to sign up to their new countries, to become French or British or Italian. The community leaders urged Besson to come up with concrete proposals. Beyond that there is only a mood, a feeling, a sense, and communities like La Courneuve fear that.

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