Critics also fear the debate will provide a forum for inflammatory rhetoric against foreigners.

'Internal politics'

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Agnes Poirier, a writer and commentator for La Vie, a French magazine, said: "The point [of the debates] is to do a lot with internal politics.

"There are regional elections in a few months and ... Sarkozy is already looking to his re-election in about two-and-a-half years time.

"And he's been extremely shrewd in the last few years, in actually campaigning and getting a lot of votes from the extreme right.

"The National Front in France is very weak at the moment, and [this is] partly thanks to his [Sarkozy's] very tough campaign on insecurity but also a national debate about immigration.

"He [Sarkozy] set up the ministry of immigration, [which caused] an outcry in France because a lot of people, a lot of historians, said 'we don't need the ministry of immigration.'


"But that's part of a general idea of trying to campaign on everyone's ground, the left and the right."

French symbols

Controversy over immigration and Muslim dress has raged in France over the past two decades.

In 2004, a law was passed that banned pupils from wearing conspicuous signs of their religion at school.

The immigration ministry said the discussions are expected to generate "actions to reinforce our national identity and reaffirm our values and the pride of being French".

The debates, which will involve campaigners, students, parents, teachers, unions, business leaders and politicians, will end with a conference on "what it means to be French today" and "what immigration contributes to our national identity".

The final event will be carried on an internet site that will allow users to have direct participation.

The plan is backed by 60 per cent of the French, according to a survey earlier this week by CSA, a Paris-based pollster, for Le Parisien, a French newspaper.

It also found the French language was seen as the most important symbol of France's identity, followed by the French flag.

But 72 per cent also said that the custom of "welcoming immigrants" was an important part of French identity.