What does it mean to be French?
Sarkozy launches debate as immigrant minorities grow more vocal, writes ELAINE GANLEY
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