Identity debate rouses passions of French public


ANALYSIS:A bout of French introspection has quickly become a debate about immigration writes RUADHÁN MacCORMAIC

WHAT DOES it mean to be French? What sets them apart? What values unite them? The philosophical underpinnings of national identity may be a topic more commonly contested in the rarefied pages of social theory journals than in the lead slot on the evening news bulletins, but in the past few weeks it has become a staple of national conversation in France and the source of a political row that has exposed some of the country’s most enduring complexes.

It began late last month when Éric Besson, the minister for immigration and national identity, announced a three-month debate to establish what unifying values underlay modern France. There was a need to redefine familiar concepts of citizenship and belonging after decades of major social change, he declared, and the task of deciding the country’s “collective future” should fall not to government, but to the French people. “We must reaffirm the values of national identity and pride in being French,” Besson said. “This debate doesn’t scare me.”

And so he opened it to the floor. Over the next three months, discussions are to take place at hundreds of locally organised town-hall meetings involving teachers, trade unionists, employers, children and anyone else who wants to have their say.

Their views will then be collated and synthesised in a report to be published by the minister at a special conference next February. A website has also been created on “ le grand débat sur l’identité nationale”, where luminaries from French public life and ordinary citizens can express a view on the meaning of Frenchness.

In Ireland, one of the surest ways to ensure a debate never happens is to call for one. Not in France, where Besson’s appeal has been taken up with enthusiasm. Identity has become the master noun of the media cycle, with politicians being routinely asked for their stance and commuters being harried for a soundbite at every turn.

Le Mondenewspaper ran a special supplement on the topic last weekend, with contributions from philosophers and historians, but the popular press has been quick into the fray as well. Traffic to the official website has been brisk, with 25,000 contributions from visitors being logged in its first week after going live.

“What defines the French is . . . strikes,” ruminated “nikkorp”. For one earnest pedant, decent grammar was the key.

What explains the longevity of the story, however, is not simply a gratifying public fervour for the finer theoretical points of identity acquisition, but a row over the government’s motivation in broaching the idea in the first place.

Among the topics up for discussion at the local meetings will be the Muslim head scarf, whether France should adopt “integration contracts”, whether applicants for citizenship should be required to demonstrate proficiency in the language and an understanding of French values, and whether schoolchildren should sing La Marseillaiseonce a year.

The debate has pleased conservatives, incensed the communists and divided opinion in the Socialist Party (though the leadership has said it will not participate, former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal has embraced it). And as for the general public, 60 per cent of respondents to a poll for Le Parisienapproved of the government’s idea, despite a similar number saying they regarded it “above all as an electoral tool”.

For President Nicolas Sarkozy’s critics, the debate – framed as one on national identity when it is self-evidently about immigration, they say – is a cynical attempt to counter the threat of the National Front by appropriating its signature issue at a time when the president’s approval ratings are at their lowest level since he took office in 2007.

In particular, they claim the initiative is an attempt to divert attention from two controversies that wounded Sarkozy in recent weeks: the furore over a book in which culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand wrote about paying young male prostitutes in Thailand, followed by news that the president’s 23-year-old son, Jean Sarkozy, was a candidate for the chairmanship of the agency that runs La Défense, the financial district west of Paris.

But Sarkozy, who made national identity one of the themes of his victorious campaign in 2007, has resolutely defended the initiative. “France has a particular identity which is not above the others but which is its own, and I don’t understand how anyone could hesitate about saying the words ‘French national identity’,” he remarked.

Recalling a point often made by immigration specialists in Ireland, his prime minister Francois Fillon has added that if immigrants are going to be asked to integrate into French society, it should be established what it is they’ll be integrating into.

Whatever the motivation behind it, the initiative has also prompted substantive argument on a traditionally fraught topic. Many are uncomfortable with the fact that the debate is being led by the minister for immigration (whose brief includes national identity), and suggest it would be more appropriate for the department of education or culture to take the lead. The government argues that this terrain should be reclaimed for the political mainstream from the extreme, and points out that the debate is open to all those living in France.

But some on the left resent the prescriptive intent behind a debate set on the government’s terms. If the report sketches an ideal that generations of French immigrants cannot live up to, does that mean they are to blame for undermining French national identity?

Behind the political manoeuvring from both sides in recent weeks are two major issues – national identity and social integration – that most French politicians agree need to be discussed. It would be ironic if the row over “ le grand débat” ended up postponing that discussion even further.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is Paris Correspondent