What does it mean to be French?

Sarkozy launches de­bate as im­mi­grant mi­nori­ties grow more vo­cal, writes ELAINE GAN­LEY

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

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 smoul­der­ing un­rest in im­mi­grantheavy sub­urbs, a move­ment to ban full Mus­lim veils, and ques­tions over whether France’s es­sen­tial iden­tity is van­ish­ing.

The ques­tion may seem straight­for­ward, but it is laden with para­dox. France 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.

“We’re in a real de­nial of re­al­ity. Our world is crack­ing silently,” said Jean-Pierre Door, a mayor who spoke on Wed­nes­day in the first de­bate hosted at the Im­mi­gra­tion Min­istry. He said the di­a­logue was break­ing long-held taboos.

This gov­ern­ment-or­dered soulsearch­ing 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 or­gan­ised by the gov­ern­ment across the coun­try.

France’s im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter, Eric Bes­son, launched the Great De­bate this month with a web­site where cit­i­zens can write about what they think it means to be French.

Wed­nes­day’s de­bate gath­ered about 60 peo­ple from in and around Mon­tar­gis, south of Paris. 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 on Wed­nes­day, though, was over­whelm­ingly white.

Jean-Noel Car­doux, a lo­cal leader, said France’s com­mon val­ues were 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 were “re­fut­ing our iden­tity”.

Marcel Hein­rich, 86, said im­mi­grants ar­rived “like in a con­quered coun­try”, adding: “It’s pos­si­ble that they could get the up­per hand in France… some­times we’re afraid.”

Op­po­si­tion So­cial­ists equate the na­tional iden­tity de­bate with a po­lit­i­cal stunt meant in part to gar­ner votes of the an­ti­im­mi­gra­tion far-right Na­tional Front ahead of March re­gional elec­tions. In­tel­lec­tu­als and philoso­phers are di­vided, as are many cit­i­zens, con­tend­ing it will fan xeno­pho­bia and stig­ma­tise 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 and 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 south-east­ern 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 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.

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 face­cov­er­ing, 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 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 out­side our con­trol. It’s not for any gov­ern­ment to de­cide.”

The ques­tion, she said, was why the is­sue res­onated with the pub­lic.

Hicham Kochman, a rap­per who made his mark with a 2006 song writ­ten to the tune of the Mar­seil­laise, the French na­tional an­them, says the de­bate is a di­ver­sion. “(It) 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.”– Sapa-AP

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