Sarkozy tries to calm identity debate

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Having let the genie of “French identity” out of the bottle, President Nicolas Sarkozy struggled today to wrestle it back in again.

A debate on “national identity”, promoted by Mr Sarkozy last month, has unleashed a squall of racist and anti-islamic opinions and exposed deep divisions within his own party.

Mr Sarkozy published a front-page opinion article in Le Monde today which tried to calm the debate and head off French reaction to the Swiss popular vote banning minarets.

The President said that he would “do all in his power” to ensure that French Muslims were treated as “citizens like any other”. He said “national identity” should be seen as a positive force – a way of keeping a “mixed race” nation from descending into “tribalism”. Muslims should have the right to follow their religion in France, so long as they did not do so in an “ostentatious” way which offended France’s “social and civic values” (a reference to his previous attacks on the burqa).

The carefully balanced article contrasted with a flag-waving speech by Mr Sarkozy last month which brought accusations, from politicians on both the left and the right, that he had set a dangerously simplistic tone for the “identity” debate. In the National Assembly tonight, opposition leaders accused the President of taking fright after fomenting a controversy to distract from the country’s economic problems and his own low poll ratings.

If that was genuinely the President’s intention, his strategy has backfired. The “identity” debate, first suggested by the immigration minister, Eric Besson in October, has galvanised the perennially quarrelsome opposition and exposed threatening fault-lines within the president’s own centre-right party.

The former Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin – nominally a political ally but increasingly detached from Sarkozyism – accused the government last week of launching a “bar-room discussion” with “no intellectual rigour”.

Jean-Francois Cope(acute on e), the ambitious, parliamentary leader of Mr Sarkozy’s party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), suggested that the debate had ignored traditional French “values” and fallen into “dangerous simplifications”.

President Sarkozy last month ordered a series of town meetings all over France to discuss national identity. A forum was set up on the immigration ministry’s web-site.

Although the declared intention was to consider the nature of “Frenchness” in the modern, globalised world, arguments focused from the beginning on race and migration. After the Swiss referendum vote 10 days to ban minarets, the subject of discussion veered increasingly to an assault on Islam.

Although many of the contributions to the Immigration Ministry forum have been moderate and thoughtful, scores of others have pointed to a racial approach to “national identity”. “To be French means to be born in France of two French parents,” said one contributor, who claimed to be a businessman. Another said: “To be French is to be born in France from parents who themselves born of French parents and so on and so on.”

Demographers pointed out that such definitions would exclude from “Frenchness” one in four of all the 60,000,00 French people - including President Sarkozy himself. France has an estimated 5,000,000 mixed race citizens, but another 10,000,000 are descended from Polish, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish immigrants of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Alarm bells also rang within the governing party, when a UMP village mayor was shown on television making apparently racist remarks after emerging from one of the “national identity” town meetings. Andre(acute on e) Valentin, 77, Mayor of Gusainville in Champagne, said that France was in danger of being “gobbled up”. “There are already ten million of them that we are paying to do nothing,” he said.

The mayor of Nice, and minister for business, Christian Estrosi, angered politicians on both the Left and Centre-right by announcing that he would “personally” prevent minarets from “invading” his city.

In his article in Le Monde today, Mr Sarkozy neither supported, nor rejected, the building of further minarets in France (which already has more than a dozen). He said all religions should have the right to worship in “decent conditions” but “incoming” citizens must be careful not to “brutalise” the feelings of a “host” community, which fears a loss of its identity and traditions.