Posted on February 9, 2010

French Identity No Longer Open to Debate

Susan Sachs, Globe and Mail (Toronto), February 9, 2010

It started with a bang and ended with a committee.

Four months ago, the French government opened a grand collective discussion about national identity. It quickly evolved into a nasty quarrel over whether immigrants, and particularly Muslim immigrants, are French enough.

Yesterday, Prime Minister François Fillon essentially shelved the debate, saying he would ask a committee of “intellectuals” to ruminate on the subject and report back in September.

“The debate was exemplary,” he announced after a closed-door meeting of the full French cabinet. “The question of the identity of France is no longer a taboo question.”

But critics across the political spectrum said the government opened a Pandora’s box in setting up a website for people to weigh in on what it means to be French and organizing more than 350 public hearings across the country.

“It’s a fine subject, but the way it was handled ended up creating a monster and a lot of racist excesses,” said Patrick Lozès, president of the Representative Council of Black Associations.

The government’s website, for example, proved a popular success, with some 55,000 comments posted on it since October. But 15 per cent of the posts had to be removed because they were racist, xenophobic or otherwise inappropriate.

Eric Besson, the Minister of Immigration and National Identity, said he never meant for the debate to focus on immigrants or on French Muslims, another common theme in the sometimes strident public hearings.

But from the start, that subtext was raised in his suggested talking points for the debate, which included the question, “Should we control immigration in order to preserve our national unity?”

The debate took place against the backdrop of an equally divisive discussion over the niqab, the face-covering veil worn by some Muslim women. A parliamentary commission has recommended that women wearing the garment be banned from public transport, hospitals and government buildings. A group of deputies from the governing rightwing party wants to outlaw the wearing of it in all public places.

A TNS Sofres poll published last week suggested that the French are generally worried about the impact of immigration. Asked if there is a French identity, 23 per cent of those surveyed answered no. But the majority or respondents said it exists, needs to be strengthened and is under threat from immigrants from different cultures.

The roots of the national identity debate go back to 2007, when newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy said the French needed to show more respect for their values and national symbols.

With regional elections looming in March, Mr. Fillon revived those themes at the same time as he dispatched the larger question of national identity for further study.

He said the government will ensure that all schools fly the French flag by the start of the next school year and that the 1789 Declaration of Human Rights is posted in every classroom “to cultivate pride in being French.”

The government will also require foreigners to prove their proficiency in French and sign a contract of rights and responsibilities in order to get French citizenship, he said.

Much of what Mr. Fillon is proposing is already in place. Since 2003, anyone seeking a work visa, residence status or naturalization has to speak French. For the past three years, they have also had to complete a course in French culture and values and prove that they have integrated into French society.

“In fact, the government decided to bury the debate on national identity,” said Harlem Désir, a spokesman for the opposition Socialist Party. “These are insignificant measures to make people believe that it actually served a purpose.”

During the national identity debate, some government ministers proposed more-explicit requirements for foreigners, including a pledge that they will not wear or force anyone to wear the full Islamic veil.

Mr. Besson proposed that each French boy and girl be required to sign a “rights and duties charter” at 18 and that the government revoke the visa of any foreigner who breaches what he called French values.