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French minister's controversial remarks an election ‘stunt’

Text by Joseph BAMAT , Ségolène ALLEMANDOU

Latest update : 2012-03-06

France’s interior minister Claude Gueant (pictured) is the subject of controversy after statements in which he said not all civilisations had equal value, but some say his remarks, far from a slip-up, are part of a calculated electoral strategy.

French Muslims asked interior minister Claude Gueant on Monday to clarify his recent statement that not all civilisations have equal value - words that were widely interpreted in France as targeting Islam. While President Nicolas Sarkozy defended his minister, analysts speculated over Gueant’s true intentions three months ahead of presidential elections.

In a letter that was leaked to several French news agencies, the president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, Mohamed Moussaoui, said that “many of our citizens of Muslim faith felt targeted by these statements… and let us know about it.”

Moussaoui went on to ask the interior minister, who is in charge of both the immigration and religion portfolio in Sarkozy’s government, to “reassure” Muslims that his speech was not referring to Muslim civilisation, “as was clearly portrayed by certain media.”

The statements in question came during a private meeting of right-wing law students in Paris on Feb. 4, in which Gueant was a guest speaker. His comments were quickly relayed out of the room by attendees on social networks and later confirmed by the minister.

“Contrary to what the left's relativist ideology says, for us, all civilisations are not of equal value, Gueant told the audience. “Those which defend humanity seem to us to be more advanced than those that do not.

“Those which defend liberty, equality and fraternity, seem to us superior to those which accept tyranny, the subservience of women, social and ethnic hatred,” the minister added, stressing the need to “protect our civilisation”.

Questioned on Sunday evening on France Inter radio, Gueant insisted he had not targeted “one culture in particular”.

“Successful stunt”

President Sarkozy was quick to label Gueant’s “civilisations” row a “ridiculous controversy”. In a pre-recorded interview alongside visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which aired on Monday evening on France 2 television, Sarkozy said his minister’s comments were full of “common sense”.

“The interior minister said that a civilisation, a regime, a society that does not offer the same space and the same rights to men and women, that didn’t have the same value,” the French president argued.

However, many analysts in France were convinced that Gueant’s statements were explicitly meant to fire up passions and capture media attention.

“[Gueant’s words] are the kind of campaign statements that get strong reactions from the political-media microsphere. The stunt was a success,” said Jerom Fourquet, deputy director of opinion studies at the Ifop polling agency.

President Sarkozy is not officially a candidate, but is widely expected to run for a second term in April. Opinion polls show right-wing voters are switching support from him to the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen.

Indeed, a recent opinion poll published by the Journal de Dimanche weekly, showed that if Le Pen was to drop out of the race, Sarkozy would climb to the same level of voter intentions as the current frontrunner, Socialist candidate François Hollande.

For Fourquet, Gueant’s statements were no slip-up, but meant to send a strong signal to voters who are undecided between Sarkozy and Le Pen. “He knew very well what he was saying,” Fourquet insisted.

Playing the identity card

The “civilisations” remark was not the first inflammatory statement related to French identity by minister Gueant. In March 2011, he infamously told the Le Monde daily that the French wanted their country to “remain French”.

“The French, because of out of control immigration, sometimes feel like they are no longer in their home country,” Gueant clarified a few days later. One month later, during a visit to the western city of Nantes he said the number of Muslims in France posed a “problem”.

According to Stephane Rozes, a political consultant, Gueant’s latest statement was reminiscent of President Sarkozy’s 2010 speech in the south-eastern city of Grenoble, in which he set out a controversial policy proposal to strip foreign-born French citizens of their nationality if they committed certain crimes.

Like the Grenoble proposal, which created a stir in the press but was never brought before parliament, the latest remarks were invoked to seduce far-right voters, Rozes said. However, the consultant questioned whether it was a paying strategy for Sarkozy’s government.

Rather than weakening the Le Pen’s voting base, Rozes argued that pandering to anti-immigrant sentiments “reinforced” her National Front party. “These remarks also risk further distancing Sarkozy from some conservative voters who may be tempted to switch their votes to [centrist candidate] François Bayrou,” Rozes warned.

Date created : 2012-02-07

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