[lg policy] French ‘Identity’ Debate Leaves Public Forum; new citizens will have to speak better French

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Feb 9 14:38:16 UTC 2010

February 9, 2010
French ‘Identity’ Debate Leaves Public Forum

PARIS — Prime Minister François Fillon of France announced a few
symbolic measures on Monday to provide concrete results from France’s
bitterly contentious debate over “national identity.” In a special
cabinet meeting, Mr. Fillon also threw the discussion, initiated
several months ago by President Nicolas Sarkozy, to an “experts
committee” of politicians and historians, bringing the debate to an
end in its current public form. Mr. Fillon disclosed a set of new
requirements that the French news media mocked as small measures
designed to extract him from a discussion that appeared to lead
nowhere except toward France’s regional elections in March, in which
the governing conservative party hopes to pull votes away from the far

Mr. Fillon said that French schools will now be ordered to fly the
French flag and to have a copy of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights
of Man and of the Citizen in every classroom. There will be a form of
young citizens’ manual for students, and new citizens will have to
speak better French, know more about “the values of the republic” and
take part in a more solemn but undefined ceremony — but the details
were vague. “The emphasis will be put on the respect for the values of
the republic,” Mr. Fillon said, “notably the principle of equality
between men and women,” language aimed at the perception that Muslim
immigrants are suppressing women by forcing them to wear head scarves
or veils.

The debate on national identity, fiercely defended by Mr. Sarkozy, has
been attacked by the opposition Socialist Party as aimed at
immigrants, much like the discussion of banning the full facial veil,
which has produced much heat but few results so far. There has been
little discussion of expanding the idea of French identity to include
the values and contributions of immigrants, but much oratory about the
need to enforce existing norms and principles. The minister of
immigration and national identity, Eric Besson, a former Socialist,
has led the debate, and it is viewed as having damaged his political
prospects. But the government said that more than 58,000 people have
participated in the debate on an Internet site.

Mr. Fillon said that the debate would continue in various forms
through the government’s term and that Mr. Sarkozy would make another
speech on the subject in April. “Nothing is worse and damaging than
things unspoken and stigmas that we know have always played into the
hands of extremists,” Mr. Fillon said, arguing that the debate over
identity could not be left in the hands of the far-right National
Front. Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, a historian, dismissed the
initiatives as insignificant. “The mountain has given birth to a
mouse, and none of these measures will change anything,” the newspaper
Le Monde quoted him as saying. “The crisis of national identity has
been created by the government. All this agitation is only an
electioneering business.”

The former Socialist leader François Hollande said ironically on his
blog that the whole debate “has given birth to a commission,” a device
that he said “Clemenceau used, under the Third Republic, to mock
governments that no longer knew what to do with their bad projects.”

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