France debates its identity, but some question why

France debates its identity, but some question why

France, a nation endlessly fascinated with itself since at least as far back as the Gauls, is again engaged in a bizarre and deeply political debate over its identity.

Not for the first time, everything has been ordered from the top down, a project and campaign promise of President Nicolas Sarkozy. A man of the centre-right, whose popularity is dropping halfway through his five-year term, Sarkozy wanted to change the political debate about what it means to be French now, especially before important regional elections next March.

Having pulled a number of unhappy or disenchanted Socialists into his government, Sarkozy is facing serious unhappiness in his own party, the Union for a Popular Movement. So by raising issues of immigration, national identity and the Islamic veil, Sarkozy is trying to assuage his party’s concerns about a ‘globalised’, more racially and religiously diverse France, which can sometimes seem pretty far removed from Racine, if not from the farces of Moliere.

Sarkozy is also trying, some analysts say, to pull in support from the far right, the National Front supporters of Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen.
The man in charge of organising the discussion is Eric Besson, 51, a former Socialist who is Sarkozy’s minister of immigration, integration, national identity and cooperative development. The Sarkozy-invented name for the ministry is telling enough; national identity, in the government’s mind at least, is connected to immigration and integration.
In an interview, however, Besson denied any connection between immigration and the debate. Asked if it was a sign of anxiety or uncertainty about the current state of France, he insisted: “No, not at all. It’s neither out of worry nor out of naive optimism. It’s the idea that there is a pleasure in discussing.”
Asked how to judge any results or how they might be used, he had no answer, saying, “I believe in the virtue of the debate itself.”

Some on the right find the debate odd, including former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, who called it ‘pointless’.

Demarcation
Many on the left, including the former presidential candidate Segolene Royal, think it is cynical. “It’s a diversionary operation and an operation of conquest of a certain voting bloc before the regional elections,” she said, but then equivocated, adding: “But I believe this debate is a real debate. Where do we want to go together?”
The right, which champions assimilation, attacks the left for privileging cultural and ethnic differentiation. But Jean-Luc Melenchon, a European deputy of the Left Party, born in Tangier, Morocco, said with exasperation: “To be French is to have a French identity card. And the rights that go with it. Period.”

Prominent French Muslims have reacted with resentment. “They can’t ask us to sing the ‘Marseillaise’ when we’re young, then when we’re adults shut us out of positions of responsibility,” said Kamel Hamza, a local councillor for Sarkozy’s party.
Yazid Sabeg, an Algerian-born businessman who is Sarkozy’s commissioner for diversity and equal opportunity, was ambivalent at best, seeing the residues of colonialism and racism. “The French nation is more united than one might think, the organic sense of being French does exist,” he wrote in the newspaper ‘Le Monde’.

But he warned of “sorcerer’s apprentices who are stirring up the threat of communitarianism,” pleading: “Let’s stop linking questions of identity to the management of migrant flows while invoking the notion of integration, especially for populations already settled here for generations. One wonders into exactly what the visible minorities — French born in France to French parents — ought to integrate.”
Besson said even the left was engaged. “If you look at just about all the politicians of the left who have expressed themselves to say the debate is unfortunate,” he said, “they all end up giving their own definition of the national identity, of values, etc. It’s perfect.”
He himself was born in Morocco, son of a Lebanese mother and a French father. Besson came to France at 17 and did well in business and politics, defecting in a major scandal from Royal’s campaign in 2007, then joining Sarkozy’s government.

Tough question
Asked if the goal was to promote the integration of immigrants or traditional ‘Franco-French’ values, Besson grew slightly upset. “I absolutely do not see myself in your question, you’re asking me if I would prefer to kill my father or my mother,” he said. “Franco-French, that doesn’t exist. There are no purebred French; there is no race.”
But there is “a shared set of values,” he insisted. “There is a political construction: a people who decides to affirm its sovereignty, which kills its king and decides to give itself a form, which is the republic, and which further believes that a certain number of values it holds can be universal values.”
And those values are? “Liberty, equality, fraternity. Secularism.” Then he added: “Many populations have difficulty understanding how deeply secularism is one of the keystones of the French worldview.”

But in the end, Besson justified the debate as following orders. “It was a campaign promise of the president of the republic,” he said. “It’s a debate he asked me to organise as soon as I got here” in January. The debate can be followed, after a fashion, on www.debatidentitenationale.fr, the official website.
Of course there were soon jokes, many of them aimed at Sarkozy, including the cover of the journal ‘Charlie Hebdo’ with a Sarkozy caricature labelled: ‘The new French identity: Beret, Baguette, Rolex’.

Even a sports scandal — when Thierry Henry helped the national soccer team qualify for the 32-team World Cup finals with an undetected ‘hand ball’ — became a question of national identity: whether clever cheating is somehow French, as opposed to ‘Anglo-Saxon’ fair play. Odder, still, since the victimised team was Ireland, which is not Anglo-Saxon at all.

The French team itself, celebrated a decade ago as a model for national unity in diversity — “Black, blanc, beur” (black, white, North African French) — is now considered by some a little too monochromatic for comfort.
The New York Times

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