French President Nicolas Sarkozy (1955- )
France is nearing completion of a nationwide debate about national identity. It lasted for two months in all available public forums, in town halls and offices of political parties, in the media and on the Internet. President Nicolas Sarkozy and Immigration Minister Eric Besson set the pace in the discussion. It boils down to two questions. First: “What does it mean for you to be a Frenchman?” Second: “How do we best convey the values of our national identity to immigrants that come to live amongst us, who become part of our national community?”
The discussion revealed that many in France are just plain haters, not merely critics of Sarkozy and Besson. Officially, M Besson’s title is “Minister of National Identity and Immigration”, which causes many mocking comments. On the Internet, people constantly call M Besson, in error, the Minister of National Unity or, in jest, the Minister of National Stinks (свинства). Many of the bloggers who participated in the discussion wrote that the debate is “shameful” in that it divides society and only serves the interests of the National Front of M Le Pen. However, no one was indifferent to the topic.
The fact is, in France, the words “nation” and “nationalism” have a slightly different shade of meaning than in Russia. In French, the word “nation” is associated with democracy, human rights, and citizenship, because the word “nation” became common after the French Revolution of 1789, and its original usage was in the struggle against despotism, both domestic and foreign. The word “national” in French refers not to ethnic origin (as “nationality” did in the USSR), but to citizenship. If they are French citizens, Jews, Arabs, and Russians all check the box next to the word “French” for nationality. However, today, France has many citizens who do not identify themselves with either the country or the French spirit, so much, that a gap between the concepts of “citizenship” and “nationality” seems to grow by the day, and there is much disquiet about this.
The problem is relatively new. Until the end of the twentieth century, there were no specific contradictions between national identity and citizenship. Immigrants in France generally loved their new home, for they often found freedoms and a standard of living there that they didn’t have in their “country of origin”. A classic example was the great German poet Heinrich Heine, who was reconciled with the fact that when his name was spoken, but not written, in French, it sounded like the French word for “nothing” (“Henri” sounded much like “en rien” (“nothing”)). Traditionally, the policy of the French state has been one of assimilation of such immigrants.
The results were quite good. In France, there are entire regions populated mostly by descendants of immigrants from Poland, and Italian names are amongst the twenty most common in the country. However, in recent decades, good old-fashioned assimilation is faltering, and it is in conflict with the global fad of “multiculturalism”, a theory that promotes a society where various ethnic communities co-exist without any preference for any one group as the “master culture”. In today’s “multiculturalism”, the word “nation” almost seems indecent. Nonetheless, the French do not wish to give up this concept, just as they do not want to give up their unhealthy, not in accordance with EU standards, but absolutely delicious, cheeses.
Somehow, the debate turned into a discussion of the problems associated with the five million Muslims living in France. Obviously, that was what MM Sarkozy and Besson were counting on. They did not hide the fact that a referendum on the construction of minarets in neighbouring Switzerland prompted the first thoughts of their debate. As you know, the people there voted to prohibit the construction of new Muslim places of worship. It provoked a reaction in the French on a gut level. In the Middle Ages, during the wars of the Spaniards and French with rapidly expanding Arab kingdoms, Europeans perceived minarets as a symbol of Islamic expansion. If minarets stood on the land, even from a distance, one could see that the Moors had won this territory.
In the end, after the Swiss referendum, a survey conducted by the Ifop Public Opinion Research Centre found that 46 percent of French people opposed the construction of minarets, 40 percent were in favour, while 14 percent refused to answer the question. People are wary of these “politically incorrect” surveys, what with left-wing politicians talking about the problem of racism in society. In France, as in most European countries, the “silent majority” is much more conservative with respect to newcomers than public figures. The media eggs on politicians to lament the discrimination faced by immigrants and to denounce the xenophobia found in the native population. Moreover, in France, local elections are just on the horizon. M Sarkozy quickly realised that he could use this debate to improve the electoral prospects of his party, the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).
“Instead of condemning the Swiss people, you should try to understand what they wanted to express by their vote, what all European peoples feel, including French people”, President Sarkozy said, setting the tone for the debate. At the same time, the French president noted that he was not speaking about freedom of conscience. Muslims in Switzerland and France do have places to pray. In France alone, there are 2,368 Muslim places of worship (there are about 4,000 Catholic), including 54 small mosques and 7 “cathedral” mosques with substantial minarets.
A person who used the signature, “A Grassroots Frenchman”, wrote on the main website of the debate, “France has existed for thousands of years, and it is simply unacceptable that people who do not wish to assimilate can force upon us their customs. This is our home. Why should we accept such unacceptable things like letting some people block the whole street at the Muslim hour of prayer? Why should we tolerate the barbaric custom of the sacrifice of animals and subsidise the construction of mosques? Where is the reciprocity?”
Then again, what if the newcomers simply do not want to assimilate? Naturally, the discussion revealed radicals who called for a full merger with the Muslims, we should cease to struggle against them, and just accept Islamisation as a fait accompli. “In 2050, France will finally be pacified, completely converted to Islam, having absorbed it into their cultural and legal institutions. French politicians understand the power of Islamic principles, otherwise they would not allow us to establish places for prayer everywhere, including in the villages”, wrote a blogger named Mounir el-Hajj.
The proposal of Minister Besson that young people, when they sign their voter’s cards at the age of eighteen, should also sign a contract of allegiance to France, caused a wave of ironic commentary. Many voters wanted the politicians who advocated this to sign a similar contract of loyalty.
21 January 2010