JEAN-MARIE Le Pen is, against all odds, back in political business. As France’s major political parties agonise over whether to ban the burqa and slap a E750 ($1170) fine on the husbands of the estimated 2000 women who wear it, the 81-year-old warhorse of the far-right National Front is enjoying an unexpected “new youth” and rubbing his hands together with glee, as Liberation newspaper puts it.

Le Pen was declared all but politically dead when Nicolas Sarkozy won the presidency in 2007 on a strong anti-illegal immigration platform. The extremist leader’s sudden resurrection is thanks to the so-called hyperpresident’s personal initiative for a “noble” national debate about what it means to be French. The controversial project was launched late last year.

For Sarkozy, the debate, which is taking place in town halls and online on the official state website, offered a diversion. National outrage over his attempted promotion of his law student son Jean to a plum political post in the family’s Paris political fief of Neuilly was threatening the President’s grip on power. Commentators pointed to the coming regional elections in March, and the government’s fears of a poor showing.

But the process has been hijacked by xenophobes and is running out of control, according to figures from the President’s own centre-right UMP Party. At least one-fifth of the 50, 000 contributions to the official website were erased because of obvious racism and Muslim-bashing. As former Chirac spokesman Francois Baroin said, the debate has opened a Pandora’s box of baser instincts that can only help the National Front.

Once again France is in the grip of national angst linked to its colonial past, and its failure to integrate the children of its former colonies, many of them Muslims.

Former prime ministers Alain Juppe, Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Dominique de Villepin have deplored the debate for stigmatising migrants and especially Muslims. France has Western Europe’s largest Muslim minority population, more than 6 million. Key figures across French politics also object to a debate about national identity and the need for a minister for Immigration and National Identity. Next Monday, a group of 20 leading intellectuals will present a massive public petition calling for the abolition of the ministry that French with long memories detest for its resonance with the darkest days of collaborationist Vichy France.

For Juppe, the question of what it means to be French “does not truly pose itself”. French identity is contained in “three words”, he said, citing the revolutionary slogan of liberty, equality and fraternity. With the addition of laicite (secularism and the strict separation of church and state) national identity is fully expressed. “What we should be debating is whether we are remaining faithful to our tradition of welcoming those who join us, in particular Muslims,” he said. France was a country of immigration and any process that set up Muslims against other communities was “detestable”.

Even the President seems to acknowledge the racist cat has jumped too far out of the bag. Sarkozy dumbfounded voters and commentators when his more-socialist-than-thou New Year’s “wishes” discourse failed to mention his pet subjects of immigration and national identity.

The President is playing a clever game, and has refrained from shutting down the debate, which will conclude early next month. For the moment Sarkozy is leaving the trench warfare to his over-zealous Minister for Immigration and National Identity, the former Socialist Eric Besson. Besson, the “most hated man in France” in the words of Marianne magazine, launched a PR offensive in the new year, lauding the national identity debate as a resounding success. He even released his contribution to the debate, a short book titled For The Love of the Nation, which newspaper critics ridiculed as littered with historical errors.

Besson congratulated himself for outdoing government targets for expulsion of illegal immigrants. Yesterday, however, the minister was forced on the back foot, cancelling a meeting as part of the national identity debate. He would have been confronted by Le Pen’s political heir and daughter, Marine Le Pen, in Pas-de-Calais, near where the “jungle” constructed by illegal immigrants waiting to cross the channel was controversially demolished last year.

The debate about what it means to be French couldn’t be nastier. Sarkozy’s New Year address included pleas for the French to be nicer to one another and rediscover the republican notion of fraternity.

This week Le Pen senior, recently elected to the European Parliament, delivered his New Year’s wishes. Jumping on the identity bandwagon, Le Pen declared that Frenchness was essentially about ethnicity (ie, white French). He resurrected his push for a referendum on immigration, in line with the Swiss vote against minarets. The wily Le Pen spoke triumphantly of his forthcoming memoirs and even offered a solution to the major political parties torn over the proposed ban on the burqa.

While Sarkozy’s UMP Party majority leader, Jean-Francois Cope, announced that women who wore the burqa in public would face a E750 fine, levied on their husbands who forced them to wear such garb, the Socialists said they were opposed to the burqa yet would not back a law banning it. For Le Pen there was no need for prohibition. “It is already forbidden to walk the streets and public spaces with a mask on,” he said.

As France proceeds with a debate many citizens abhor, the question of immigrant and especially Muslim integration poses itself everywhere.

The national identity debate was unexpectedly drawn into a push for education reform this week with the imperious refusal of the Grandes Ecoles, or France’s most elite colleges, to admit 30 per cent of students on scholarship, as directed by the Sarkozy administration. Their argument? That the general standard would be lowered.