The British press on Sarkozy's quest to define French national identity
The oft-quoted “French model” has long been defined by what it is not – the so-called “Anglo-Saxon model”. But as two British newspapers found out, the defining issue now appears to be immigration.
An angle British newspapers are sure to focus on when covering a story like the French national identity debate is race and immigration. At home, the influx of immigrants is standard fare for much of the British media, especially its right-wing elements.
And viewed from across the channel, France's ethnic mix seems to be the burning issue as French President Nicolas Sarkozy launches his national debate on French identity.
Sarkozy is asking the nation to consider what being French actually means in 2009, and wants grass roots debates to be held across the country over the next three months.
The Daily Mail, not known for holding back when lambasting immigration, says a website set up by the French government where citizens can voice their opinions ahead of the debates has been flooded with racist comments.
The newspaper even chose a few to give its readers a taste of French xenophobia: "Being French means being born in France to two French parents," and "Immigrants who want to impose their lifestyle on us should go home," were among the comments the paper picked out.
As a footnote, the piece reminds its readers that "racial tension has been rife in recent years, with riots in high-immigration suburbs, fears about Islamic terrorism, attempts to ban Muslim veils and fears the Gallic identity is disappearing in the global economy."
Something to love?
Lizzie Davies, Paris correspondent for the left-leaning Guardian and Observer newspapers, suggests in an Observer article published on Sunday that the debate has split the country down the middle, an irony when the debate is ostensibly about uniting the nation.
She points out that since Minister for Immigration and National Identity Eric Besson launched the debate, which will take place at a grass-roots level over the next three months, the issues that have been at the front of the agenda pander to the far right and threaten to offend the country's large immigrant population.
"As well as a discussion of the singing of the Marseillaise in schools, Besson wants the burqa – the head-to-toe Islamic veil worn by a tiny minority of France's six million Muslims – to be high on the meetings' agenda," she writes.
She goes on to quote historian Pierre Laborie, who in an interview with Libération says that "it is legitimate to be interested in what it means to be French," but that "the problem starts when one … gives the idea that immigration poses a problem for our identity."
Ms Davies finishes by picking out a quote from the same website as the Daily Mail: "My children ski in the Alps in the winter and swim in the sea in the summer. They go to the cinema, visit museums and eat often in good restaurants or good food from the market.
"But for those who were born in the Parisian banlieues… what is France and what is there to love about her?"