Thanks to the grand national debate on French identity, a section of society is giving free rein to sentiments that diminish France and the ideals of fraternity and brotherhood it has striven to defend.

By launching “a grand nation-wide debate” on what constitutes French national identity last November, President Nicolas Sarkozy has opened up a veritable Pandora’s box of ill-feelings and hatred bordering on xenophobia.

The move was prompted by purely electoral calculations. Regional elections are to be held in March and the Socialists and their Left-wing allies control all but two of France’s regions. Mr. Sarkozy was hoping to widen his electoral base, wooing backers of the extreme Right, anti-immigrant National Front which, polls indicate, has recently rebounded after its last election defeat. By enlarging his constituency in the first round of the two-round vote, Mr. Sarkozy hopes to give his candidates a better chance of carrying off the second round run-off.

Ironically, by accident or design, the debate was launched with great fanfare on November 1, the 55th anniversary of the outbreak of the Algerian war of independence which kicked off on Toussaint Rouge (Red All Saints Day) in 1954 and lasted till 1962, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. The Algerian community in France saw this lack of sensitivity as being in poor taste.

France is home to Europe’s largest community of Muslims, an estimated five million, most of whom come from former French colonies and protectorates in Africa such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, Mali and Ivory Coast.

At the behest of Mr. Sarkozy, the debate was initiated by Eric Besson, Minister for Immigration, Integration and National Identity, a former Socialist who changed sides to become the President’s hatchet man in all matters concerning immigration and the crackdown on asylum-seekers and economic migrants. Most of his former Socialist colleagues understandably disapprove of Mr. Besson and even new fellow travellers from the President’s Right-wing UMP party look upon his gung-ho attitude to expulsions (including those of Afghan asylum-seekers whose country is currently under occupation by French soldiers as part of the international coalition) as truly distasteful.

The Ministry’s website has received several hundred thousand hits and many of the messages are shocking in their virulence. The debates are organised by prefects in public places such as town halls and schools, and have, more often than not, produced an outpouring of xenophobic hate and anti-Islamic sentiment. Over 80 per cent of those expressing themselves say they feel that the French national identity is “weakening” or being “diluted” by foreigners and foreign influences including “alien religions.”

The question whether or not to ban the burqa, now under discussion in Parliament, has added another ugly dimension of Islamophobia to the already strident debate. Undoubtedly, Europe is going through a phase of xenophobia as is evident from the outlawing of construction of minarets in Switzerland and the repeated attacks on foreigners in Spain, Italy, Denmark and other nations. France, it appears, is no different, although one has always hoped it would be the one exception, given its revolutionary past and strong republican values.

The debate has come in for such zealous criticism from academics, thinkers, social activists, and members of the Left-wing Opposition as well as a few members of the President’s own governing coalition, including the former Prime Ministers Alain Juppe and Dominique de Villepin, and caused such an upheaval that it was hoped Mr. Sarkozy would allow the matter to die a quiet, natural death. But the President, whose personal political ambition is total and unbounded, recently declared that he had every intention of continuing the debate.

Several groups of academics have signed petitions calling for the scrapping of the Ministry of Immigration, Integration and National Identity, saying it brings back shameful memories of the persecution of Jews during various periods of French history, including the sordid episode of Dreyfus and the hounding of Jews during World War II. Other groups of academics and thinkers have published articles and pamphlets against what they see as the stigmatisation of foreigners and French citizens of non-white origin.

In an article, a group of researchers calling themselves The Collective For a Real Debate says: “No references are included [on the Ministry website] to those communities residing in French overseas departments or territories or in underprivileged suburban housing estates … Hidden behind this “debate on national identity” lies another one that has to do with France’s colonial history and its legacy, and the unspoken question is not “What is it to be French?” but rather: “Can one be black, Arab, Asian, or from a French overseas department or territory and be French?” … And we’re not just talking about any immigrant here; the most “coloured,” the “inheritors” of colonies, the most fervent advocates of “ethnic factionalism,” and those who refuse to assimilate. In other words, “those who don’t love France,” who are heard booing the national anthem or who demonstrate in the streets when Algeria qualifies for the World Cup, cause havoc in the suburbs, destroy the economy in “our” exotic overseas paradises, and seek to diversify the “ethnic” and religious profile of the republic. The same people who are weakening “our” soul, our “essence” and who force their women to wear the burqa…

“Ignoring, worse, even stigmatising these components of French society means that the debate on identity is flawed from the outset. Rather than advancing thinking, Eric Besson’s initiative offers an opportunity to steal the thunder from a shaky extreme right on the eve of a strategic election, at the midway point of the President’s term in office …”

Historian and political scientist Patrick Weil, author of the award-winning study France And Her Foreigners, is an authority on questions of immigration and identity, and has served on the commission that recommended a ban on the “ostentatious” wearing of religious symbols in state schools. He is a signatory to a petition that calls for the dismantling of the Ministry of Immigration, Integration and National Identity. Signed by several prominent public personalities, the petition states: “It is time to publicly take a stand on this nationalistic grabbing of the idea of the nation, of our universal ideals which are the foundation of our republic.” Posted on the web on January 7, it has already attracted over 25,000 signatures and won the backing of leftist and centrist parties.

Mr. Weil, who is speaking on national identity at a seminar in New Delhi today told The Hindu in an exclusive interview: “This debate was a presidential initiative. By nature the question of identity is a complex issue anywhere and immediately becomes controversial. Why did the government and the President of France launch that debate? The main reason is clearly linked to immigration with an implicit prejudice that French citizens whose roots are in Africa or in North Africa, whose parents, grandparents have come from these foreign countries, might represent and I quote “a problem because they don’t adapt very well.” It is a way of marginalising the minorities and the government’s calculation is that by stigmatising the minorities it will get the majority vote. This is a manufactured debate in order to shift the focus from questions such as unemployment, taxes, the economic crisis or inequality.”

National identity should never be the business of governments, Mr. Weil said. “It can be a topic of academic research, of discussion in civil society. It is not a matter for governments because a nation’s identity is a social and historical construct that cannot be defined by law or decree.”

Most of the so-called “foreigners” (read ‘coloured’ and Muslim) are, in fact, second or third generation French citizens, who have been relegated to the margins of society. Their marginalisation and ghettoisation in underprivileged semi-urban housing estates often lead them to crime, gang warfare, social failure and, more recently, religious extremism, especially Islamic fundamentalism. Statistics show an over-representation of these populations in the country’s prisons. They show unemployment rates that are three times the national average.

“The majority of the French “issued from immigration” [as the rather distasteful term goes] are, in effect, French in the sense they have a French nationality. So if these French persons are in fact French, why pose the question of French identity? It presupposes that there is something called “Frenchness” that lies in certain predetermined behaviour patterns, mores (dress, food, religion, culture) and customs and that a person can claim to be French only if he has submitted to these cultural dictates,” explains philosopher Constance Beth.

President Sarkozy’s grand national debate has given the genie the freedom to come out of the bottle. His narrow political ambitions have unleashed long bottled feelings of insecurity and hatred. And a certain section of society, with the highest political unction, is giving free rein to sentiments and acts that diminish France and the universal ideals of fraternity and brotherhood it has striven to defend.

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