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French prime minister calls Sarkozy out for ‘Gaulish ancestry’ comments

Seyllou, AFP | French President Manuel Valls in the Senegalese capital of Dakar on September 22, 2016

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls responded late on Thursday to former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial comments earlier this week on the country’s Gaulish ancestry, stating that France was stronger because of its diversity.


Valls touted France’s strengths as a multicultural society at the start of a 24-hour visit to Senegal.

“Today’s France is a society that is mixed, multicultural, because of immigration, all kinds of immigration,” Valls said in front of a gathering of Senegal’s French community in the capital Dakar.

“If we are French, it is not because of our origins, our religions or the colour of our skin,” he said. “Our country’s strength is its diversity, its mixing, its love of these values, which are deeply and profoundly universal.”

‘Your ancestors are Gauls’

Valls’ comments were in response to a highly controversial speech made by Sarkozy on Monday, September 19, during which the former president said that when someone becomes French his or her “ancestors are the Gauls”.

Speaking to supporters in the northwestern Paris suburb of Franconville, Sarkozy – who is a candidate in the country’s centre-right presidential primary – lashed out at what he called the “tyranny of the minorities”.

“If one wants to become French, one lives as a Frenchman. We will no longer tolerate an integration that doesn’t work, we will demand assimilation,” said Sarkozy, himself the son of a Hungarian immigrant.

“Once you are French, your ancestors are the Gauls,” he continued in reference to the ancient Celtic people who inhabited large swaths of what is today France and other parts of Western and Central Europe.

The Gauls’ resistance against the Roman Empire in the first century BC has been romanticised by the popular Astérix comic book series, published largely in the 1960s and 70s.

Children in France and its former colonies were also schooled until the 1960s about the country’s “Gaulish ancestry” – a practice that has since been criticised for fostering xenophobia by basing French history on ethnicity.

Political backlash

Sarkozy’s comments, which have been widely interpreted as an effort to woo votes from the country’ far-right National Front (FN) party, have drawn sharp criticism not only from Valls, but from other right-wing and Socialist opponents as well.

French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem suggested on Tuesday that Sarkozy was in desperate need of a history lesson. She said among Gauls, France’s ancestors also included Romans, Normans and more recently people from the Caribbean, North Africa and Spain.

“Enough of the narrow-minded speeches that lead us nowhere, enough of the inward-looking postures,” Vallaud-Belkacem, who is of Moroccan origin, told news channel iTele. “I think it does a lot of harm to our country.”

Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé, Sarkozy’s main rival in the centre-right primary and a fellow member of Les Républicains party (formerly the UMP), also weighed in on the issue.

"We're not all the same, we need to respect diversity," Juppé told France Info radio.

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