Why France's National Identity Debate Backfired

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Lionel Bonaventure/ AFP / Getty

A man poses with his passport in front of Paris' Statue de la République.

It was launched by President Nicolas Sarkozy's government three months ago with much hype and patriotic ebullition — a series of 100-plus town hall meetings across France to debate what it means to be French in the 21st century. And even after opponents on the left and right alike criticized the initiative as a Machiavellian way of casting immigrants, their French-born children and especially Muslims as a threat to France's national identity, government officials defiantly took the initiative to term. This week it ended with a whimper, however when authorities issued a list of largely symbolic measures intended to shore up patriotism, but which critics say will ultimately have little impact on society.

Many observers saw the exercise as a political ploy — an effort by the conservative government to seduce extreme right-wing voters by fanning nationalist flames ahead of regional elections next month. Other critics said that while discussing French identity isn't objectionable in itself, people used the scores of open debates and the government's online forum to voice opinions that only served to offend public sensibilities. Some have even questioned whether the entire initiative may have backfired, doing more harm to Sarkozy's already tarnished image and undermining his party's chances in the March balloting. Early polls showed the right cruising to victory in the regional elections, but since the identity debates began, surveys show the left likely coming out on top.

Nicolas Dupont-Aignon, a conservative parliamentarian and usually a supporter of right-wing causes, said that the initiative "completely escaped" the government's control. "The government poorly framed this debate from the outset and — for electoral objectives — spoke of national identity rather than national unity," he says. While the media are now filled with fretting by conservatives about the right's chances in the March elections, politicians on the left aren't tempting fate by predicting victory. The left is, however, using the opportunity to bash Sarkozy's government. "What a fiasco: Operation National Identity, which was supposed to raise deep questions ends up in a retreat with its tail hanging to the tune of a cracked trumpet," Laurent Joffrin, editor of the leftist Libération newspaper, mused in his Tuesday editorial. "[Public opinion] immediately realized this was not a questioning of the nation that could have been pertinent, but a mediocre diversion in the time of social crisis."

Indeed, the proposals put forward by Prime Minister Francois Fillon this week to bolster patriotism are hardly revolutionary in scope. They include a requirement for schools to fly the French flag (most already do) and for each classroom to display the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (ditto). Authorities also called for naturalized foreigners to meet unspecified linguistic and integration requirements and instructed schools to issue "Young Citizen's Logs" to children in which they can record their civic actions.

Polls showed that a majority of people initially supported having the discussion about national identity. But those numbers quickly reversed themselves as media commentators attacked the debates for stigmatizing foreigners and their children and as conservative politicians participating in the town hall meetings made what many considered to be racist or xenophobic comments. For example, a conservative mayor in eastern France argued that the country would be "eaten up" by immigrants who already constitute "10 million (people) we pay to do [expletive]," while a former right-wing minister warned that France risked disappearing "when there are as many minarets as cathedrals." Secretary of State for Family Affairs Nadine Morano also provoked a scandal when she appeared to describe young French Arabs as being unpatriotic and shunning work.

In the most recent survey conducted by the polling firm Obea-Infraforce in late January, a mere 33% of people considered the debates to be constructive and 61% said the process had in no way defined what being French means. More than half of respondents also felt the entire idea was motivated by concerns by Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement party that it could suffer big losses in the March elections.

Despite the derision the debates elicited, Fillon promised the issue of national identity would continue to be examined once the regional elections are over. Sarkozy, too, plans to give a public address on the issue — but not until April. Clearly, the government realizes that the electoral gamble it took may not have worked out to its favor. Now, it's trying to put the issue behind it — and quickly.