France: identity in question

A "great debate" over French national identity is compromised by its politicised character and exclusionary discourse, says Patrice de Beer.
Patrice de Beer
11 December 2009

It’s a familiar story. Every time France is in trouble, and when its politicians are in need of public support, they reach for a supposedly unfailing remedy: the nation.

The process can take many forms: nostalgia for past “grandeur”, fear of “foreign invasion”, return to “tradition”, reaffirmation of “national identity”. All are connected by the search for a vehicle to unite the French behind its leaders. The thread of continuity in this effort crosses generations and political boundaries: from Marshall Pétain invoking the “peasant roots” of a defeated France in 1940, to General de Gaulle's insistent “grandeur”; from François Mitterrand's election poster of 1981 that portrayed a quiet village with its church-steeple, to Jacques Chirac’s castigation in 1991 of “noises and smells that drive French workers next door insane”.

And now it is Nicolas Sarkozy’s turn. In November 2009, the president opened the latest grand débat sur l'identité nationale about what it means to be French: a project always destined to be controversial, but one made unnecessarily toxic by its political definition and resonances.

A political context

Why now? The fact that France is now experiencing the heavy social price of the financial crisis makes this time-honoured card seem propitious to the country’s leaders. It was the brainchild of the president’s new friend Éric Besson - the minister for “immigration, integration, national identity and solidarity development”,  poached (in a classic “Sarko” manoeuvre) from the Parti Socialiste (PS) in 2007. The president made the idea his own; it became a project with local as well as national dimensions, extending to all 100 of the country’s départements under the responsibility of local préfêts. Besson will announce its outcome (after the receipt of the last contributions on 31 January) on 4 February 2010 - coincidentally (or not) five weeks before the regional elections of 14 and 21 March.

The reference to political timing is unavoidable, especially where such a deeply political figure as Nicolas Sarkozy is concerned. But the fact that the president is reeling from a series of scandals, several involving his closest circle, only in part explains the doubts over the latest “identity” exercise. Jacques Chirac’s comment is a clue to an even darker aspect, that this discourse - even if presented in benign and generous words - is so often closely tied to anti-immigrant sentiment (and, in the fetid world of the Front National (FN) in particular, an association with crime).

That may seem odd, for France has for centuries been a country of immigration. Today, 23% of the French have at least one foreign-born grandparent; Sarkozy's own father was born in Hungary and his mother is of Greek-Jewish ancestry, and is married to an Italian. (I too am typically French in having Flemish ancestors on my father's side, a Hungarian grandfather on my mother's, and am married to a Chinese woman).

All the more regrettable then that the architects of the debate give the uneasy impression that “immigration” to France means at heart non-European immigration. It is hardly mentioned that historically, immigration to France has been mainly European (that is, white and Christian) - including tens of thousands from Poland, Italy and Armenia in the 20th century. It is as if the phenomenon began only in the 1960s with the arrival of men from north Africa and sub-Saharan Africa to take menial jobs in an expanding economy (see James McDougall, “Sarkozy and Africa: big white chief's bad memory”, 7 December 2009).

A loaded questionnaire

Nicolas Sarkozy chose Vercors, a symbolic site of French résistance to the Nazis, to launch the debate on 12 November 2009. He spoke at length of “crisis”, of “traditions” being undermined, of “national identity” being under threat, of values, of respect, of a feeling of ”civic disintegration” (just like 1940...). The examples he gave were either linked to immigration or to the left - reflecting the belief on the right that it “owns” an issue that by the same token must be divisive and self-destructive for the left. “France is diverse and always has been”, said the president, but “there is no place in France for the burqa or for the enslavement of women...France is not just a community of interests. To become French means to adhere to a form of civilisation, to values and customs”.

Such reference-points are reflected in many of the 200 questions made public by the immigration ministry as a basis for this “national debate”. The choice of potential characteristics of French identity includes “our churches and cathedrals”, “our wine”, “our culinary art”, “our landscape” and “our way of life”; there are prominent queries about whether intermingling and the ostentatious display of religious signs are compatible with integration into the national community; and the shadow of a dreaded communautarism is raised (over “how to avoid the concentration of a large part of the immigrant population in zones with accumulating socio-economic problems”).

The Swiss referendum vote on banning minarets has given unexpected support to those elsewhere who feel their identity is threatened by Muslim immigration. The French debate, initially seen as a tool to increase Sarko’s support, has had the unexpected effect of pumping air into a dispirited Front National,  obliging Sarkozy to write a column in Le Monde to rebut the FN’s attempted “confiscation”. There he said that Muslims, like any other believers, “must avoid any ostentatious or provocative behaviour”. The article, rather than dousing the embers, has sparked them back into life (see “Respecter ceux qui arrivent, respecter ceux qui accueillent, Le Monde, 8 December 2009).

A tendentious link

This debate belongs to societies which have more than ever opened up to the outside world and a new heterogeneity. It could and should be a normal and mature one. But the questions and the way they are posed raise doubts, because they would never have been asked about earlier generations of (white) immigrants.

A fairer question about the “zones”, for example - in plain speech, suburban ghettoes of council flats – would be: why do immigrants congregate in deprived areas where there are no jobs and few public services, and are these factors among the roots of the absence of a sense of belonging to the French nation? If these zones become centres of - among a tiny (if visible) minority - crime, drug-trafficking and Islamist-fuelled hatred, this is the responsibility of a society and government that has failed a large section of its people (see Henri Astier, “’We want to be French!'”, 22 November 2005). The notion of “national tranquillity” promoted by Besson’s predecessor, the interior minister Brice Hortefeux - also close to the president - is of little help here, for it too occupies the ground of symptoms rather than causes.

What do the French people think about the topics raised in this debate? An IFOP-JDD poll of 29 November 2009 finds that 57% consider such a debate necessary, while 72% see it as a pre-election gimmick. A survey published by the Catholic daily La Croix on 23 November also suggests that the polarising focus on crime and immigration is not shared by the French majority: instead people chose, as key elements of their identity, human rights (71%), French language (68%) and the welfare state (62%) - ahead of culture (48%) and Christian heritage (12%).

A modest proposal

The French , it seems, have a different view of their identity than their leaders. Their priorities in life are jobs, income, health and housing - even if concerns over immigration or crime are growing. But since politicians are unable to deliver on these issues, including the successful integration of distrusted outsiders, they resort to low-cost acts of symbolism: an official ceremony for new citizens, increased displays of the tricolour, and making mandatory the singing in schools (at least once a year) of the La Marseillaise. A country that likes to portray herself as “the motherland of human rights” should be able to aspire to more.

The pattern of opinion-surveys suggests that (as political scientist Olivier Duhamel argues) France's politicians should concentrate on nurturing the country’s social identity - a force that is in permanent evolution and is influenced at many points by a dynamic world. The aim of “national identity” should be to unite those sharing common values in a shared land, rather than to seek and force new divisions (see “France’s lost and found ideals”, 13 May 2009). It would be a pity to hijack a necessary debate for electoral purposes and divide “identity” between the “good” French and the “others” who - for political or biographical reasons - see the world differently.

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