On three sides, the Robert Montaigne square is a model of traditional Parisian style that has hardly changed in generations. The fourth side opens into the French capital's magnificent Grande Mosque, built with government money in a rare departure from secular policy, to show gratitude to the many sharpshooting tirailleurs from North Africa who fought for France in the 1914-18 world war. In the small garden of the square, the children bantering in playground French are a multitude of ethnicities.
It is a charming corner of the Left Bank, named after Robert Montaigne, a prominent French scholar of Islam, that seems to encapsulate France's rich cultural and ethnic mix. But as the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, the country is fighting to come to terms with the consequences of the large-scale immigration that produced that mix. So much so that the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, ordered a three-month public debate on national identity that is to culminate with a list of suggestions next year. But the question has sharply divided the country.
When the centre-right government poses the question - what does it mean to be French? - the response of the left and some neutral commentators is to detect a cynical attempt to exploit fears about immigrants and social tensions as regional elections approach. As a legacy of French colonialism in North and West Africa, the country has Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated at between five and seven million. The restructuring of modern Europe has driven a new wave of immigrants towards France from the former Communist bloc, and lifestyle choices have brought relatively more prosperous settlers from the English-speaking world, especially Britain.
The process has left some of the indigenous French uncomfortable with the dilution of their sense of nationality, even though many of them also have foreign roots, while newcomers struggle to find their place in society. "The question should not be 'what does it mean to be French?' but 'do you feel French?'," said Mohammed, 31, a French-born policeman of Moroccan parents, after worshipping at the mosque. "And I am afraid that I do not.
"There are many reasons, but above all it's a matter of my appearance and my name. In France, I am not considered French but in my parents' home country, I am not considered Moroccan. It is as if I have no identity." At the austere École Militaire in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Eric Besson, the minister who - on behalf of Mr Sarkozy - launched the national debate, was yesterday one of the main speakers at a keystone public meeting drawing together leading philosophers, academics and writers.
For the organisers, the Institut Montaigne think-tank - its name recalling an earlier French thinker called Michel de Montaigne - the debate centred on the "singular plural that is France". Meetings are also being held in towns and cities around the country between now and March. Critics say the debate has been hijacked. Mr Besson, himself born in Morocco of French and Lebanese parents, admits that racist and xenophobic comments had been posted on the government's own website. He insisted on French radio yesterday that the vast majority of the 40,000 messages observed republican principles, and that many were "sublime, future-orientated, generous and reflective on national, European and world identity".
Many who find no fault with the principle of the debate nevertheless wonder why Mr Sarkozy, who was originally due to speak at yesterday's meeting but withdrew, should have launched it at a time of rising public concerns about integration. Following the Swiss vote to ban minarets, a poll for the daily newspaper Le Figaro found that the French were increasingly hostile not only to the towers built at the sides of mosques, but also to the construction of new mosques.
The findings showed 46 per cent wanted to outlaw minarets, with only 14 per cent in favour and the rest offering no view. The figure of 41 per cent against new mosques (with only 19 per cent in favour) was the highest since the 1980s. Le Figaro quoted the pollsters, Ifop, as saying tensions surrounding Islam had never been deeper, reflecting a perception of Islam by some as a "religion of conquest".
French politicians of the far right have long played the race and immigration card. But some, especially on the left, worry that Mr Sarkozy's attempts to strengthen his own hold on power have led him to court similar electoral territory. The president said in the summer that head-to-toe burqas made women "prisoners behind netting" and were unwelcome in France. A parliamentary "mission of information" was created to consider a possible ban on wearing them in public and will report in the new year.
At the École Militaire yesterday, round-table panels debated topics including the role of history in teaching the French about themselves; what being French signified in modern times; and how to re-establish a one-nation sense of belonging. One French-Algerian listening to the discussions, Malika Sorel, said France as a whole had to instil more discipline and belief in education in the young. "But it must also stop lying to people of immigrant backgrounds," said Ms Sorel, a writer attached to a government body, the High Council for Integration. "Even students leaving the Grandes Ecoles can have problems finding proper employment, but it is worse if you are from a poorer background and get the same diplomas as anywhere else but find they are somehow seen as less valuable because of where you studied."
Ms Sorel accepted that the debate had led to a "collision of agendas" but believed it was nevertheless worthwhile. At the Grande Mosque, officials were diplomatic. "Let us say I have no problem with the debate but also that I am not naive and see how it could be linked to elections," said one. A visiting French professor of philosophy, Claude Roëls, felt less need for restraint. "It is a good subject, but the timing is cynical and makes the exercise artificial," he said.
"But if you ask me what is the essential to being French, it is the ability to speak French. Respect for tradition is less important; a tradition in Normandy might be to drink Calvados and eat saucisson. You would not expect a Muslim to do that but he might be no less French." email@example.com
Brigitte Perrier, 49, personal assistant and mother of two: "Having worked alongside foreigners here and as a foreigner abroad, I am struck by how it changes how we perceive our own countries. I know my roots are in France, but retain a critical eye on the overloaded administration, a certain arrogance and a tendency always to complain. On the plus side, I find it more tolerant than the Anglo-Saxon world in some ways and more respectful of privacy. Pierre N'Gahane, 46, France's first black prefect (administrative head of the Alpes-de-Haute Provence), born of Cameroonian parents in Congo-Brazzaville, where his father was working: "It is for the body politic, not me, to decide on this national debate, but it is legitimate and, I believe, important. The world, France included, is in a state of evolution and movement and we must construct new values we can share together for the future. I also believe in fundamental French values of freedom, fraternity and citizenship and would say the most important test of French identity is to be able to say, 'I love France and would be ready to die for it'" Nabila Ramdani, 31, French-born of Algerian parents, journalist and academic currently studying for a PhD on the rise of Egyptian nationalism after the Second World War: "There is no need for anyone to tell people like me who and what we are. I feel utterly French, though I obviously love my Algerian side, too. But there is discrimination. It is well known that ethnic minorities have problems in getting jobs and housing because they are seen as not French enough. It is strangely better in the private than public sector. My objection to the debate is that once you try to come up with fixed definitions of what it is to be French, you start to exclude people. Why can't we be a people of multiple identities?"