THE STALLS of the Christmas market were shutting down for the evening and the icy chill left most of the old town deserted and still, but at the préfecture off Place Broglie, the biggest show in town was just getting under way. Dozens queued at the gates in the hope of a late ticket. Photographers snapped and doormen shook their heads and any innocents passing by must have wondered what class of celebrity had found himself holed up in Strasbourg’s anonymous seat of provincial administration.
What drew the crowd was not the scent of celebrity stardust, however, but an inescapably esoteric three-hour debate on the meaning of being French.
Since late October, France has been engaged in a national discussion initiated by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government to establish what unifying values define the nation. Hosted by prefects–the state’s representative in a département or region–town hall meetings on le grand débat have been taking place across the country, and their conclusions are to be collated in a report to be published next February.
Now it was Strasbourg’s turn. In the magnificent salon of the préfecture, under two great chandeliers and a portrait of president Nicolas Sarkozy, the 150 seats were filled to some local consternation–by invited politicians, academics, activists and journalists.
The format was akin to an academic symposium: a chair, two extended panel discussions, three speeches and a roving microphone.
There were no rules, said prefect Pierre-Etienne Bisch, but comments that breached incitement to hatred laws were prohibited.
This has become the most contentious ground of the grand débat. Many of Sarkozy’s opponents on the left see the project as a strategic move by him aimed at pleasing soft National Front voters in the build-up to regional elections next March.
They also warn of the dangers of a debate that has been framed in exclusionist terms.
“I get the feeling that I’ll have to hand over my identity card if I don’t meet whatever criteria come out of this national identity debate,” a young Frenchman of Turkish origin said at the Strasbourg meeting.
In the past fortnight, the voices within Sarkozy’s own political family expressing public unease have grown louder, with three right-wing former prime ministers among those who have spoken of their reservations about the project.
Adding to their discomfort has been the constant flow of news coverage portraying the debate as parody (a politician from Sarkozy’s party told a meeting that she wanted young Muslim men not to speak verlan–a slang common among young people–and not to wear their caps back-to-front) or something much more serious (days before the Strasbourg debate, a small mosque in Castres was daubed with swastikas).
In Strasbourg, the three-hour discussion was by turns stimulating, engrossing, digressive and dull. Alsace, of course, is un terrain particulier where notions of national identity are complicated by a well-developed sense of regional belonging forged from centuries of geo-political upheaval.
It is also a conservative region whose urban areas have a high immigrant population and where the National Front polls well.
After an hour devoted to hearing about the evolution of national identity as a theoretical concept, Xavier Codderens, a local National Front councillor, stood up at the back of the hall and stopped a speaker in his tracks.
“Is this a debate or a lecture,” he demanded.
“Why are we having this debate? Because we have a problem with immigration. . . We’ve been speaking for an hour and nobody has said the word immigration . . . The problem is Islam, because Islam has not been asked to integrate itself into democratic society.”
A Jewish representative immediately rose to his feet to protest, followed by a suited man in the front row.
“I’m Muslim, French and proud to be French,” he shouted.
“My father came to defend Alsace. Around France, there are hundreds of cemeteries full of Muslims who died for France.” But for the most part, the evening passed quietly, almost dutifully.
A communist with a pencil moustache said France should learn to respect multiple identities.
A precocious child from the local international school mused that people could be whatever they wanted to be.
Voltaire was invoked. Freud was cited. As ever, De Gaulle’s name was never far from anyone’s lips.
“This debate is typically French,” one speaker concluded with an air of pride and wonder.
After more than three hours, however, it never became altogether clear what all of this was for exactly.
Nobody had attempted to venture a definition of what it meant to be French. Asked by The Irish Times what she made of the debate, a young woman from Avignon rolled her eyes.
Look around, she said: there are two black faces, few Arabs, hardly any young people and far more men than women.
“This has nothing to do with what’s really going on,” she remarked.
Summarising the debate, law lecturer Thierry Rambaud told the audience that the near-consensus seemed to be that national identity was a complex amalgam of symbols and values, but that the concept itself was “evolving, fluid, constantly under construction”.
Their job done, the crowd filed out into the adjoining room for champagne and canapés.