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Why Sarkozy's hard words about immigration may resonate in France

The bedrock concept of Frenchness is that any French citizen can climb the ladder, if they speak French. But what about immigrants -- 11 percent of population -- who don't integrate?

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / March 7, 2012

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech as he receives representatives of the Armenian community in France, at the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 7.

Remy de la Mauviniere/Reuters

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When French President Nicolas Sarkozy said there were “too many foreigners” in France, he touched not only on the powerful issue of immigration – always a crowd-pleaser in an economic slowdown – but also on the more fundamental question of what it means to be French.

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After all, Mr. Sarkozy himself is the son of a Hungarian immigrant. He is also a conservative Rudy Giuliani-style career politician who sees his job as defending French civilization from “les étrangers.”

And as Sarkozy faces challenges both from the far-right National Party candidate Marie Le Pen and from Socialist Party candidate François Hollande, Monsieur Le President has returned to the hard talk on immigration that made him famous as a candidate years ago.

"Our system of integration is working worse and worse, because we have too many foreigners on our territory and we can no longer manage to find them accommodation, a job, a school," he said on France 2 television.

This statement, spoken on French national television, sounds perhaps harder than it really is. While Sarkozy is clearly to the right of the socialist position on immigration, he is far more moderate than the far right, which advocates the withdrawal of state medical aid to foreign-born immigrants.

These are lean times in France, far removed from the robust years of French colonial expansion 200 years ago, when French warships sailed the oceans, gathering up colonies like so many bon-bons. Even after World War II, as France moved toward granting political independence toward those colonies, France’s leadership never questioned the notion that all of the French-speaking world – including African and Middle Eastern immigrants – were at some fundamental level actually French.

“The French really see their identity as a civilization, and they want people to be part of that civilization,” Jean-Benoit Nadeau, the Montreal-based sociologist and co-author of the book “Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.”

French people like to think of their civilization as having deep and ancient roots, Mr. Nadeau says, but in reality, the French civilization they are preserving is relatively young. “Two centuries ago, France was predominantly non-French speaking,” says Nadeau. “French was spoken in Paris and the surrounding areas, but most of the rest of the country spoke other languages, such as Occitane, Bretagne, Alsacien.”

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