France's Sarkozy launches controversial national identity debate

President Nicolas Sarkozy's government started a 'what is French?' website today. Critics say the national identity debate is intended to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment ahead of national elections in the spring.

What does it mean to be French?

As part of a long-simmering question over France's direction, the government of Nicolas Sarkozy today started a website asking citizens to give input on French values, patriotism, and their thoughts on the rise of minorities here.

It's Step 1 of an ambitious national "grand debate" on "identity" that aims to span tiny French hamlets and city districts over the next four months, ending just ahead of a national by-election next spring.

The project, run out of the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, opens a politically fraught but substantial debate that Mr. Sarkozy first broached in 2007: How to define French tradition at a time when France faces burgeoning African, Arab, and Asian immigrants, and other changes in a globalizing world.

France has not conducted such an "identity" discussion in a top down manner before, especially on such a hot-button topic. (Although in 1999, 36,000 French mayors trod similar ground before voting for a new model for Marianne, the symbol of the French republic)

The "What is French?" website offers civic wisdom by some of the French greats – Montesquieu, Hugo, Malraux. But it also puts forward questions seen as leading, such as, "Why is the question of national identity provoking uneasiness among some intellectuals, sociologists, or historians?"

While many say the discussion is long overdue in a country that still does not officially recognize ethnic differences (under the banner of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity"), critics accuse Mr. Sarkozy of attempting to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment in a bid for to secure the right-wing vote ahead of next spring's election.

"It is an important debate," says Karim Emile Bitar, an associate fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Relations in Paris. "France needs to find a way to preserve its universalist model, which is remarkable on philosophical grounds, with new realties that make the model seem hypocritical because of the giant gap between ... proclamations of equality ... [and] the reality on the ground ... discrimination and unequal opportunities."

Shrewd politics?

Abruptly playing the French identity card is seen as both shrewd and crass, analysts say. Shrewd, because it diverts current anger over a number of Sarkozy poll-depleting controversies, including "le affair Jean Sarkozy" in which the president's 23-year old son was being groomed to take the reins of the wealthiest district in Paris (he's since withdrawn). But also because the identity question – widely understood here to be unaddressed – is now being tackled by the left, as well as Sarkozy's own center-right political allies.

The left wishes to engage the problem of how to make French universal ideals of liberty and equality relevant or clearer. Their question is how an officially color-blind society has so systematically excluded its immigrants and peoples of color. By addressing this question so directly, Sarkozy shows that his party cares, too.

Or just crass?

Those who find Sarkozy's new initiative crass say that identity questions pander to the French right wing, a vote that Sarkozy and his party will need to win elections next spring.

Critics worry about an official debate on identity taking place in government buildings, organized by a ruling political party, with official conclusions arriving just ahead of an important national by-election. It may be a way to manufacture consensus in France for tougher strictures on minorities, they say.

"For several years, immigrants and the children of immigrants have been targeted as threats to the French national identity," says Pap Ndiaye of the School for Advanced Studies in Social Science. "This may be a way to suggest they are not French or are not as French as they should be. There are so many ways to be French, and I think it will be sad if the government tells you how to be French. I worry about authoritarianism hidden behind debates on identity."

(Coincidentally, Mr. Ndiaye's sister, a novelist of African heritage raised in Paris, on Monday won the distinguished French Goncourt Prize for her novel, "Three Powerful Women," about what she described to French radio as "common capacities of resistance and survival.")

In two weeks, the new French identity website will shift to asking thematic questions. In December, the government begins a program of official debate and discussion to include "everyone living in the nation," and is expected to bring politicians, nongovernmental organizations, teachers, pupils, parents, minority associations, trade-union leaders, religious groups, and patriotic associations.

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