What does it mean to be French?
That's the thorny question the government is putting to its people in what's being billed as a "Great Debate" _ set against a backdrop of smoldering unrest in immigrant-heavy suburbs, a movement to ban full Muslim veils, and questions over whether France's essential identity is vanishing in a complex world.
The question may seem straightforward but it is laden with paradox.
France is a country that has one of the highest proportions of immigrants in Europe and endures recurrent tensions over religion _ yet champions the notion of a consensual "Frenchness," anchored in secularism.
The country prides itself on enshrining liberty, equality, fraternity _ yet faces constant claims of injustice, mainly from Arab and black minorities, many of them French citizens, which saw thousands of their youths rampage through housing projects in 2005.
"We're in a real denial of reality. Our world is cracking silently," said Jean-Pierre Door, a mayor who spoke Wednesday at the first debate hosted at the Immigration Ministry. He said the dialogue is breaking long-held taboos.
This government-ordered soul-searching over the French identity is an effort to clarify and reaffirm the nation's values, which President Nicolas Sarkozy says have been "forgotten and sometimes denied."
All French citizens are in principle invited to participate in the series of meetings organized by the government across the country, lasting through Jan. 31.
France's immigration minister, Eric Besson, launched the Great Debate earlier this month with a Web site where citizens can write about what they think it means to be French. More than 32,000 contributions were posted in the first two weeks, according to the ministry.
Wednesday's debate gathered about 60 people from in and around Montargis south of Paris, officials, business leaders, members of associations, teachers and parents, in a cramped meeting room.
A historic town known to Joan of Arc and King Francois I, Montargis now welcomes immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and beyond.
The crowd Wednesday, though, was overwhelmingly white.
Jean-Noel Cardoux, a local leader of the Loiret region where Montargis is located, said France's common values are being undermined.
"It's the consequence of uncontrolled immigration for 25 years. We shouldn't hide this," he said. He alluded to people of Muslim origin, saying they are "refuting our identity."
Marcel Heinrich, 86, said immigrants "arrive here like in a conquered country."
"It's possible that they could get the upper hand in France ... sometimes we're afraid," he said.
Opposition Socialists equate the national identity debate with a political stunt meant in part to garner votes of the anti-immigration far-right National Front ahead of March regional elections. Intellectuals and philosophers are divided, as are many citizens, contending it will fan xenophobia and stigmatize nonwhite French.
Talking points include French history, culture, religion or language. Ultimately, they are meant to address a handful of proposals such as the meaning of national symbols like the flag or whether youths should be obliged to sing the national anthem at least once a year _ and how to share values with immigrant citizens.
"France is a nation of tolerance and respect, but it also asks to be respected," Sarkozy told farmers in southeastern France earlier this month. One cannot reap the advantages of living in France "without respecting any of its laws, any of its values, any of its principles."
France is also a nation of many immigrants but, until recently, most newcomers hailed from other European countries. Now many more people from elsewhere, notably Muslims from former French colonies, are part of the mix. With 5 million Muslims, France has western Europe's largest Islamic population.
Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, appears to have a clear vision of France's national identity _ or what it is not. In his recent speech, he took new aim at the face-covering, all-enveloping Islamic robe worn by a very small minority of Muslim women, saying there is "no place for the subservience of women" in France.
Debating the national identity "is not dangerous. It's necessary," Sarkozy said.
Some see the debate initiative as a reaction to a France whose citizens, and non-citizens, of immigrant origin are growing increasingly vocal, just as the singular French model of integration by which foreigners are expected to fully assimilate is weakening.
"I'm amazed at this debate. It's a political event (and) doesn't represent any deep need in society," said Emmanuelle Saada, a sociologist and historian at Columbia University and France's Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.
"National identity is not up to us to establish as a norm for us to conform to," she said in a telephone interview. "National identity just happens. ... In a big sense, it is outside our control." And, she adds, "It's not for any government to decide."
The question, she said, is why the issue resonates with the public.
Hicham Kochman, a rapper known as Axiom, says the national identity debate is a diversion.
Axiom made his mark with a song 2006 song, "Ma Lettre au President," written to the tune of the Marseillaise, the French national anthem.
"I think this debate hijacks the real problems," like unemployment and purchasing power, he said.
"The only values in France are liberty, equality, fraternity. ... Each time injustice gains ground, the values are weakened. For me, France isn't a country. It's an idea."