France President Sarkozy drops national identity debate

France President Nicolas Sarkozy had sought to use a national identity debate to heal social rifts and propel himself to victory in the polls. But three months on, the debate has been dropped and Sarkozy's standing harmed.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
In this photo, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech on the future of the rural areas in Moree, France, Tuesday.

The French Elysee is quietly dropping one of its more cherished and controversial projects – a "national identity" debate that went haywire almost immediately and threatens to harm President Nicolas Sarkozy in crucial elections this March.

According to a French ruling party script set last November, the nation would discuss on the Internet, then in town halls and cities, enduring French values like liberty, equality, and fraternity, and the Gallic genius behind the works of Hugo and Camus.

The conversation would lead to agreement on what it means to be French, at a time when immigration anxieties are high and just a few years after rioting in poor, immigrant-dominated neighborhoods around Paris shook the nation.

By early February, the plan went, President Sarkozy would give a triumphal speech bringing it all together in time for the French to vote.

Instead, the debate became a lightning rod for fears of immigration and Islam, a format for extreme-right ranting, and was ridiculed by media – at a time when conservative French lawmakers were also pushing a law to ban the burqa, or full-length Muslim veil, in France, which may happen this spring.

Now Sarkozy’s speech is no longer scheduled, and Prime Minister Francoise Fillon yesterday ended the public debate by announcing small new patriotic rules: French flags will fly on schools, the 1789 declaration of the rights of man will be posted in every classroom – and a commission that will study it all further.

The French media were fairly unsparing: “Operation National Identity, which was supposed to raise meaningful issues, is ending up in a full retreat, at the sound of a cracked trumpet,” writes the editor of Liberation, Laurent Joffrin. Ouest France, a daily, shot at “shallow announcements” after “four months of debate.”
Yet Prime Minister Fillon yesterday earned some plaudits by refocusing the debate from divisive national questions to “French republican values” – while also acknowledging the importance of an identity discussion at a time when there has not been a strong or meaningful one.

“Nothing is worse and more damaging than things unspoken and stigmas that we know have always played into the hands of extremists,” Mr. Fillon said, in comments that artfully closed the discussion and aided his political profile.

In recent weeks, ruling UNP party strategists, faced with polls showing the debate unpopular, appeared to surmise that it could also hurt their chances in March regional elections. The opposition Socialist party holds some 20 of the 22 regional councils.

The real loser in French politics over a botched debate appears not to be Sarkozy (whose popularity is low) but Eric Besson, the minister of immigration. Mr. Besson was tapped by Sarkozy to create a debate over what it means to be French.

In the French context, Besson has been roundly criticized for switching from his socialist roots to join Sarkozy’s ambitious stable of politicians and make a name for himself. Yet a succession of miscues and miscalculations – one ruling party small town mayor said, “we are going to be gobbled up,” meaning by immigrants, who he implied were lazy – seemed to run the identity ship aground.

Sarkozy’s original identity speech is said to be set for April, after the elections.


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