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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?

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It took a French revolution, and ultimately a centralized French government to impose a unified French language and a defined concept of Frenchness on society, and it was this same definition of French civilization that French colonizers took with them to Africa, the Middle East, and beyond. It is a cultural framework that lives on in France and other French-speaking nations, and few French people want to see that cultural unity disintegrate.

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That is what makes France’s current immigration debate so emotional, Nadeau says. “What do you do with 10 to 15 million citizens who don’t speak French?”

According to Eurostat, the statistics arm of the European Commission, 7.1 million people, or 11 percent of France’s population were foreign born as of 2009.

What would happen to France, if Sarkozy began to dismantle the present setup for French immigration? Ivan Rioufol, a blogger for the conservative Paris daily newspaper Le Figaro, says that even discussing immigration is akin to “blasphemy.” But, he adds, it’s time to start risking the conversation, he adds.

“It would be absurd to maintain a zero immigration [rate] in an open democracy. But a nation is neither a hotel nor a Spanish inn. It is silly to claim that mass immigration will pay our pensions and insure our demographics, not understanding that such contributions also bring another civilization. Would it be asking too much of politicians and media to give up their reflexive positions and think?”

For the record, Sarkozy's statements about "too many foreigners" are not an indication that he is about to close the doors. At least not yet. In the France 2 television interview, Sarkozy said, "I want France to remain an open country, because that is the tradition of France. But I do not want an immigration that is based solely on the appetite for income-tested benefits," he added because in France "there is a welfare system better than our neighbors."

Nadeau says that the problem is this: For French politicians to talk about integration of immigrants,  they have to admit that there is a problem with integration, and therefore, perhaps it is a problem that even something as robust as French civilization cannot resolve naturally. 

“Sarkozy is playing a dangerous game by bringing up immigration, but he's got his back against the wall," says Nadeau. "It is legitimate for Sarkozy to speak of integration, and I don’t think that it is necessarily extreme right for him to do so, but in the French political culture, it is often interpreted as such.” 

He laughs. “But the problem is, it is extremely difficult to know what he means.”

* Keep Calm, a winking reference to the World War II slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On," is a new blog that aims to provide a bit of context to help make sense of confusing news events. 

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