Sarkozy denounces multiculturalism as 'a failure'


FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy has declared multiculturalism a failure and has taken issue with Muslims praying on the streets of French cities.

In a televised exchange with selected voters, aimed at setting out his plans for the year ahead, Mr Sarkozy echoed the recent critiques of multiculturalism by British prime minister David Cameron and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

“It’s a failure,” he said. “The truth is that in all our democracies, we’ve been too concerned about the identity of the new arrivals and not enough about the identity of the country receiving them. This raises the issue of Islam and our Muslim compatriots.

“Our Muslim compatriots should be able to live and practise their religion like anyone else . . . but it can only be a French Islam and not just an Islam in France.”

Mr Sarkozy’s public approval ratings have held constant at about 30 per cent for the past year and cracks have begun to appear in the centre-right coalition that ensured his victory in 2007.

With a presidential election due next year, his UMP party has been unsettled by the improved standing of the far-right National Front under its new leader, Marine Le Pen.

The president’s remarks came just days after Ms Le Pen congratulated Mr Cameron on his criticism of multiculturalism, claiming it was an endorsement of her party’s position.

In a wide-ranging TV interview watched by 8.2 million people, Mr Sarkozy also echoed Ms Le Pen’s controversial remarks about Muslims praying on the streets of French cities. She compared the sight to an occupation, which was widely interpreted as a reference to the second World War.

“In France we don’t want people to pray in an ostentatious manner in the street. Prayer offends no one but we do not want . . . aggressive religious proselytising,” he said.

The president’s remarks on multiculturalism raised confusion yesterday, as France sees itself as having implicitly rejected the live-and-let-live model by insisting on assimilation of immigrants in the state system and the rejection of religion in the secular public sphere.

While Germany and Britain have been relatively flexible about minorities’ cultural practices, France has banned headscarves in schools and is about to introduce a separate ban on face veils in all public places.

A group representing French people of African origin called on Mr Sarkozy yesterday to explain his statement.

“The diversity of French society, especially its religious diversity, cannot be a failure because this diversity is France itself,” Patrick Lozès, head of the Representative Council of Black Associations, said.

Mr Sarkozy broke a mainstream political taboo last summer when he explicitly linked immigration and crime. In the TV interview, he acknowledged his government had not done enough on juvenile delinquency.

On the controversy over French ministers’ holidays in north Africa, which have provoked rows over the government’s close connections to autocratic Arab regimes, Mr Sarkozy said “not a cent of public money was misused”, but he accepted the revelations about foreign leaders’ hospitality could “shock” the public.