By BRUCE CRUMLEY / PARIS
For decades, the French considered it taboo to question whether immigration and foreign influences were diluting France's social and cultural character. Indeed, the topic was considered so toxic that no one in France besides extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen would even take it up in public. But times have changed. Twenty years after Le Pen's National Front Party (FN) became a political force in France, its view that immigration is threatening the French national identity is starting to gain wider acceptance. Now, the government is putting the issue front and center for the first time by encouraging people to have a vigorous national debate about what it means to be French in the 21st century.
"We must reaffirm the values of national identity and pride in being French," Eric Besson, the Minister for Immigration and National Identity, said as he announced the three-month series of discussions on Nov. 2. "This debate doesn't scare me. I even find it passionate." Besson says it's important for an increasingly diverse France to define its essential unifying values and reclaim a national pride and patriotism that the National Front co-opted long ago for its own xenophobic purposes.
Others are worried, though. Fleshing out how people view the concept of Frenchness today has sparked controversy, as one might expect. Detractors have loudly denounced the initiative as stealing the national-identity page from Le Pen's playbook — and casting suspicion on immigrants, naturalized citizens and French-born minorities as posing threats to it. Some opponents have also accused the government of using an emotive issue to try to divert attention from a series of high-profile political scandals in recent months, such as the accusations of nepotism surrounding a bid by President Nicolas Sarkozy's son to attain a public post and the allegations that the French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand paid for sex with boys in Thailand. Besson was also highly criticized himself for ordering an illegal refugee camp near Calais to be razed in September, and three Afghans be deported back to their war-torn country. "Shaken by a series of political scandals that have thrust the FN back onto the stage,
the government is again serving up the old nationalist soup," says Djamila Sonzogni, a Green Party councilor in eastern France.
Critics also believe the idea is motivated by political opportunism. With regional elections looming next March, leftist politicians and pundits say the government is using the national-identity theme to appeal to the right-wing Le Pen voters who flocked to Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign once he began promising to get tough on crime and immigration. Le Pen's daughter Marine, the FN vice president, has voiced a similar accusation. "This country is suffering a major crisis of identity that is driving it into chaos," she told the Europe 1 radio station on Oct. 28. "We've been denied this debate for 25 years. We want a (real) national debate, not an electoral gadget."
The French public seems to be either split or confused by the government's motivations in calling for the debate. One poll published on Oct. 29 showed that 64% of people believe the issue is being used "above all as an electoral tool," but in another poll released three days later, 60% of respondents favored a debate on the topic.
The discussions are to take place during hundreds of locally organized town-hall meetings involving education, union and cultural officials and ordinary people concerned about the state of French identity. Among the questions Besson has suggested for the debates: Should France implement "integration contracts," which would set minimal levels of language and cultural knowledge for citizenship; and should students be required to sing the national anthem "La Marseillaise" at least once a year?
Some fear that these types of questions — even the debates themselves — invite assumptions that generations of immigrants have already undermined France's identity and may provoke nationalist sentiments long championed by Le Pen. "When you put immigration and national identity side by side, it creates the notion that immigration poses a threat to national identity — which can inspire racism," Mouloud Aounit, president of the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples, told the daily l'Humanité on Nov. 2. "But this debate also reveals an identity crisis of a part of French society ... and the failure of its model of integration, which doesn't allow people to do just that."
Besson's supporters say the goal, however, is not to single out immigrants and minorities, but rather to safeguard the unique aspects of the French identity that they perceive as being threatened by foreign influences. "Globalization erases a little more of every nation's characteristics every day," says Frédéric Lefebvre, spokesman for Sarkozy's ruling Union for a Popular Majority Party. Given such cultural erosion, Lefebvre called for a defense of our "cultural model and la Douce France" — an allusion to crooner Charles Trenet's famous 1943 song rhapsodizing about the villages, people and traditions of pastoral France.
But Trenet's song was meant to be an inspiration to his countrymen to withstand the brutal Nazi occupation of France. Some of Besson's critics say the national-identity debate, meanwhile, is rooted in modern-day xenophobia, not nostalgia. Perhaps a solution might be to inspire patriotism by asking French people to warble Trenet's ditty regularly rather than dutifully drone "La Marseillaise" once a year.