Would-be migrants must undergo classes in what it means to be French
By Jon Frosch
International Herald Tribune
Published: August 9, 2007
PARIS: “How long is this going to be?” a middle-aged Moroccan woman whispered.
She was one of about 20 foreign-born residents of France – as diverse a group as one could imagine – who gathered in a classroom on a summer morning in Paris. What brought them there was an agreement each had signed with the government of France: They would try to integrate into society, accept French values and learn the language, and France would help them along the way.
The contract “of welcome and integration” has been mandatory since January for all people from outside the European Union applying for long-stay visas, except for students and seasonal workers. It is part of a package of immigration rules known as the “Sarkozy law,” passed in July 2006, when Nicolas Sarkozy, now the president, was interior minister.
The routine procedures for a prospective long-stay visa holder include a medical examination, an interview and a language assessment. But the contract adds a new requirement: a day of civic training, regardless of the applicant's language fluency and the length of time spent in France.
The mix of people thrown together on this training day was worthy of an international reality TV show: a Tunisian woman who had lived in France for 19 years, a shy middle-aged housewife from California, a suave Ghanaian businessman, an upscale-looking Lebanese woman with a large gold cross and impeccable French, a couple of glowing newlyweds from the Philippines, and a wisecracking Australian.
And, of course, the instructor, an affable Frenchman in his 30s. On the eight-hour agenda, he announced, were lessons in essential French history, laws, values and political institutions, as well as a presentation on the European Union. It was a daunting agenda, the more so considering the instructor's tireless efforts to repeat everything in English.
“What are some of France's overseas territories?” he asked hopefully, nodding toward a pull-down map of the world.
“Belgium!” someone called out. Giggles lightened the mood.
What followed was a summary of French colonial history without an allusion to its harsher events and legacies. When a young Algerian woman attempted to discuss the French-Algerian war, the instructor changed the topic. The storming of the Bastille and the influence of French philosophers were recounted with gusto, but France's involvement in World War II was explained with no mention of collaboration or deportations.
What became clear was the difficulty of doing justice to the harder realities of a country's past and present while portraying the country in a way to appeal to newcomers. The task is even trickier when many of those newcomers come from places that are historically intertwined with France, often in painful ways.
But faced with subjects that could affect them in concrete ways, like marriage, religion and naturalization, sleepy trainees suddenly turned attentive.
A young mother from Ghana who had also lived in Britain raised her hand to note that France could not claim liberty, equality and fraternity for all if homosexuals were not allowed to marry.
“Single people can't adopt?” a woman from Seattle asked incredulously.
Various people hammered the instructor with pointed questions about the differences between marriage and civil union. Others expressed disbelief when told how long children born in France to foreign parents must wait before gaining French citizenship (sometimes 15 years).
Someone wondered why such a proudly secular country had so many Catholic holidays.
“That's just the way it is,” the instructor said finally, shrugging in exasperation.
Concluding the day's lessons with a bit of practical advice, the instructor cited schools and hospitals as common places for immigrants to find work.
The Tunisian woman, who had been in France long enough to know, added “construction sites” to the list. The outspoken mother from Ghana, who had heard stories from immigrant friends, muttered “people's kitchens.”
France is certainly not alone in adopting increasingly rigorous integration policies. Other European countries, like the Netherlands, Germany and Britain, have established similar measures, including tests for potential citizens on the host country's language, culture and principles.
But Sarkozy's emphasis on national identity and “Frenchness” is unsettling to some migrants and political critics, who feel he is fundamentally hostile to immigration. After all, his detractors say, this is the man who stepped up the deportation of illegal immigrants and courted far-right voters by evoking (with slightly more tactful language) a slogan used by Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front party: “France, love it or leave it.”
If this day of civic training – with its flashes of skepticism, and even direct criticism, on the part of the immigrants – was any evidence, many immigrants are not willing to buy the patriotic formula offered.
“That was pretty interesting,” the woman from Seattle remarked at the end, while everyone stood up to leave, certificates of attendance in hand. The young mother from Ghana begged to differ, saying to no one in particular: “It was too long, too much.”
As people started shuffling out the door, a soft-spoken young Indonesian woman who had been one of the more attentive trainees approached the instructor, who looked worn out.
“You did a really good job,” she offered with a smile. He smiled back appreciatively.
It was as warm a welcome to France as anyone could ask for.