Sarkozy Accused Of Fear-Mongering As France Debates Its Identity

Sarkozy accused of fear-mongering as France debates its identity

Nicolas Sarkozy is being accused of taking advantage of deep divisions over France's lack of success in integrating non-white immigrants

By Peter O'Neil, Europe Correspondent,
Canwest News Service
October 29, 2009

PARIS—President Nicolas Sarkozy is being accused of trying to take advantage of bitterly deep divisions here over France's lack of success, particularly when compared to countries like Canada, in integrating non-white immigrants.

Sarkozy, whose 2007 election victory was helped by his get-tough approach to crime and immigration, will launch a series of public debates next week on France's national identity.

It's an initiative that critics say is an attempt to “change the channels” following controversies over child sex and nepotism that have tarnished Sarkozy's reputation, particularly among far-right voters who are deeply hostile to the millions of Muslims here.

“We must reaffirm the values of national identity and of the pride in being French,” said his minister of immigration and national identity, Eric Besson.

The public debates starting next week, and continuing over several months, will consider proposals such as a ban on women wearing burkas in public, and a requirement that all schoolchildren must sing the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, once a year.

The initiatives comes in the wake of controversies over Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand's past as a sex tourist in Asia, and over the aborted attempt by Sarkozy's 23-year-old son, Jean, to take control of the agency that runs France's top business district.

Sarkozy's rise to the presidency has been linked to his hard-line positions on crime and immigration as interior minister, particularly during the 2005 car-burning riots when he called young rioters “scum” who should be hosed down.

His main 2007 presidential election rival, Socialist Segolene Royal, was among many who accused Sarkozy this week of trying to once again ramp up anti-immigrant sentiment to help win support from far-right voters.

Yet, while some on the left have denounced the initiative, saying it conjures up memories of Vichy France's bid to revive traditional French patriotism after the Nazi conquest in 1940, even critics defend the importance of determining what unites an increasingly diverse population.

“This debate is fundamental,” said Royal, who naturally hopes the country can rally around traditional left-wing principles such as solidarity and social justice.

One of France's leading immigration analysts, the University of Paris's Patrick Weil, denounced Sarkozy's tactics in an interview with Canwest News Service this week.

“Instead of trying to resolve the problem, they are aggravating it by attacking these minority people, who are mostly integrating very well in the French society,” said Weil, author of How to be French: Nationality in the Making since 1789.

“It's really, I would say, disgusting in some way.”

Weil, part of a government advisory panel whose recommendations led to a ban on headscarves in public schools in 2004, acknowledges France has ongoing problems that need addressing with respect to widespread discrimination, hopelessness and unemployment facing France's ethnic minorities.

Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, during her many visits to France, has touted Canada's self-image as a role model for France in the areas of integration and multiculturalism.

Indeed, the Canada-France comparison is stark. Canada brings in almost four times the number of migrants on a per capita basis, according to the latest comparative analysis of 2006 data by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development.

That year, Canada, with roughly half France's population, accepted 252,000 newcomers almost double France's 135,000 total.

Yet France clearly had far more difficulty absorbing the newcomers, with a jobless rate for foreign-born residents in the mid-teens almost double that of native-born residents. The difference between the jobless rate for Canadian-born and foreign-born workers in Canada during that period was much narrower, the OECD said.

Despite several warnings from the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute that Canada's large migrant intake could lead to riots, there has been no violence even remotely on the scale of what countries like France have experienced.

But Weil said it is unfair to compare Canada's immigration experience with that of France.

“Canada is like an island,” Weil said, citing the Far North, two oceans and the U.S. as buffers limiting the number of undocumented migrants entering Canada.

“So Canada has a very strong power of controlling who can be an (immigrant), much more than the U.S. and Europe,” he said, “and because of this power Canada always accepted the highest-skilled immigrants.”

France's immigration story is far different, even though this country has proudly viewed itself since the late 19th century as a country that has put out a welcome mat to the world.

France, from that period until the mid-20th century, was suffering from both a low birthrate and massive loss of life as a result of the First World War. So they welcomed Jews fleeing oppression in Russia, Germany and other European countries, Spaniards seeking a new home after the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, and countless others, including celebrated British and American writers and American blacks veterans of the First World War who marvelled at the lack of prejudice here and returned to make their homes in France.

But the dynamic changed after the Second World War, when European economies took flight and desperately needed cheap labour for plants and factories located on city outskirts.

Migrants, often illiterates from rural communities in Africa, were imported by French companies to work and live in dismal neighbourhoods dominated by concrete high rises and little space for recreation.

The 1973 oil crisis, combined with the influx of baby boomers entering the job market, marginalized the so-called “guest workers” who many expected would remain in France only temporarily. The country tried to shut the door on immigration but the relatives of these guest workers kept coming, often illegally, to a country that was growing increasingly hostile to their presence.

Today, many French of foreign descent view Canada with wide-eyed wonder as a haven of openness and opportunity compared to France, where the French Revolution's principles of liberty, equality and fraternity clash with a widespread view that the upper echelons of business, politics and government are no-go zones for non-whites.

Jean-Paul Gourevitch, another immigration specialist at the University of Paris, said the ghettoization of Muslims in the poor suburbs where unemployment rates are many times higher than the national average is a problem that explains why the likelihood of violence is greater in France.

“We are in a situation that is worse than Canada's,” Gourevitch told Canwest in a telephone interview.

Weil said France, blinded by the demands of the liberty-equality-fraternity ethos, waited far too long to create institutions like the anti-discrimination office called HALDE, which was set up recently by a Montreal-born lawyer to deal with France's integration problems.

“In my country's history, you have always had big battles on this issue. Can the Protestants can be good citizens? Can the Jews?” he said.

“And now you have the Muslims, and you have half the country who are reluctant, and half who value equality before the law and respect everybody. And the question is, who will win? It's a battle.”