Global Policy Forum

As Election Looms, Nicolas Sarkozy Picks Time for Debate


By Lizzie Jones

November 2, 2009


It has been billed as a quest for the soul of the Gallic nation: a voyage of discovery, with Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm, to discover the je ne sais quoi that makes French people French.

But, as the government today launched a three-month "grand debate" on what unites the country, it was accused of exploiting social divisions for cynical political gain.

Proclaiming the need to redefine the values of France in the 21st century, Éric Besson, minister for immigration and national identity, unveiled a participative project that he said would allow French people to decide what their "collective future" should be.

Tackling subjects ranging from a ban on the burka to the singing of La Marseillaise in schools, the debate is to be held via a series of public meetings involving local politicians, union leaders, teachers and other pillars of the French republic. A website set up to host discussions on the subject had already received 3,000 contributions by early this afternoon.

When asked what they thought of the debate, 60% of respondents to a CSA poll for Le Parisien newspaper this week said they thought it was a good idea. It has been welcomed by many in Sarkozy's traditional fan base, who see in it a return to the conservative agenda they supported in the 2007 presidential campaign. Frédéric Lefebvre, spokesman for Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party, identified the need to fight for the values of "la douce France" ("sweet France") in a world in which "globalisation, which every day erases a little more of the characteristics of each nation, is so unrelenting".

Max Gallo, a leading French historian, rejoiced in the discussion, setting out his "10 cardinal points" of the national character, which ranged from gender equality to laïcité, France's particular brand of secularism.

But others claimed this romantic veneer did nothing to disguise sinister nationalistic undertones. Rather than making concrete attempts to help smooth France's fraught process of integration, particularly of the country's 6 million Muslims, the government was indulging in tub-thumping patriotic rhetoric, they said. The Communist party went as far as comparing Sarkozy with the head of the Vichy state, saying the project marked "the most nauseating kind of Pétainism".

For many the nub of the problem is the lumping together of identity and immigration. The ministry of immigration and national identity, responsible for enforcing the government's drive to toughen up French borders and increase forced removals, has been the object of much criticism since Sarkozy created it in 2007.

"[The debate] is unbearable," said Patrick Weil, a political historian and author of a book on French identity. "If you want a ministry to discuss the issue of national identity, which is anyway absolutely absurd, you could give it to education or culture ... but to put it under immigration is to say that the problem lies there."

The timing of the exercise has also come under fire from those who denounce it as a cynical vote-winning strategy by a president whose approval ratings have plunged after a series of policy disasters. Due to come to a head with a summit chaired by Besson on 4 February, it will end just before March's regional elections. Many accuse Sarkozy of exploiting fears over immigration to boost his rightwing credentials.

"It is a debate which is 100% political," said Martin Hirsch, Sarkozy's adviser on youth affairs.

Christine Boutin, a former minister, pointed to the risk that the pre-election political agenda could end up playing into the hands of the far-right Front National, the party that has traditionally monopolised the debate about "Frenchness". "The chosen calendar risks radicalising the debate," she warned.

However, it is precisely the prospect of a mainstream recapturing of French national symbols that appeals to many supporters. Both the staunchly leftwing Libération newspaper and rightwing Le Figaro have written of the need for the question to be discussed by people other than followers of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter, Marine.

Ségolène Royal, the Socialist party candidate in the 2007 election, who took on Sarkozy over national identity at the time, has championed the debate from the left. Describing it as a fundamental issue, she has reminded voters that she proposed a return to an appreciation of the tricolore flag as a means of forging communal spirit.


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