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?

Remy de la Mauviniere/Reuters
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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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