Last night, Sarkozy appeared on television. This isn't unusual, of course, and I usually don't watch. I mean to -- patriotic duty of the newly naturalized, you see -- but his addresses and interviews fall inconveniently during prime time, otherwise known as bath time chez Petit, and since we don't watch much television anyway, I forget. If I'm motivated enough, which is rarely, I read the political analysis in Le Monde online the next day.
But last night was different. Sarkozy was staging a "town hall" style interview, a format which is all too familiar to Americans from our marathon presidential campaigns. A panel of "ordinary" French, hand-picked by the TF1 network, would sit across from Sarkozy, air their personal grievances and express their concerns about the direction in which France is headed. My reason to tune in was simple: I was curious what panelists had to say and how Sarkozy would respond, but mostly I wanted to know what a group of ordinary French was supposed to look like.
The question of what makes someone an "ordinary" citizen has been on the front pages of the papers for months. By launching a Great Debate on National Identity, Sarkozy's government has decided that it is time to ask the French what it means to be French and I, as a somewhat-newly-minted French citizen, am nervous. I worry because I can't fathom the point of the debate and suspect the worst. The web site makes vague statements about globalization, the global financial crisis and the burqa; I sense a lightning rod for racism and xenophobia, or at best an ill-conceived political distraction.
Not that I think that I'll be driven out or excluded, flown home on the next plane or even criticized for not being sufficiently française. But if not me, why not, and what does that say about my right to claim French nationality? Because the debate about identity is a thinly-disguised debate about immigration, and about who has the right to come here and on what terms.
Its questions are hidden between lines in the newspapers or in whispered half-words spoken between colleagues at the coffee machine, behind concerns about what's happening in "difficult" neighborhoods, about crime, unemployment, education, and assimilation. I'm often shocked at the candor of the debate, for political correctness is not as valued in France as it is in the US. At the worst extreme, on the far-right political fringe of the National Front party, the rhetoric is worthy of Vichy: their tracts juxtapose words like "foreigner" and "ethnic" with "crime" and "instability," and their posters announce "Being French: it's merited, it's inherited." At the same time, many more French proclaim far and wide that France is a country that incarnates human rights, with a duty to defend equality and to combat injustice.
It clear to me that even among the politically moderate, cultural diversity is widely seen simply as a hurdle to overcome. The consensus is that it divides, it doesn't unite, and the Republic at its best and most just is simply blind to it. At the same time, over half of my friends and colleagues here are, like me, first- or second- generation immigrants to France. Many are from France's former colonies: Algeria, Morocco, Madagascar, the Republic of Congo, Vietnam, to name just a few. Our personal stories start elsewhere, but we are not any less French. The reality of diversity is very different from the imagined perils.
Sarkozy barely talked about national identity last night, and I was relieved, although one of the panelists, a black thirty-something father of five, broached the subject. He lived in one of Paris' toughest suburbs, one blighted by violence, unemployment and exclusion. I didn't tune in until the middle of the program, but of all of the panelists I heard, he was one that stated his questions with the most calm and reflection, when his frustration was arguably among the most justified.
He told the president that in the debate we were asking ourselves the wrong question. Asking what makes someone French is not so different from simply asking who to exclude. He proposed a different question: Comment vivre ensemble? How do we live together? Sarkozy, ever the the habile politician, superficially agreed and then pivoted to the next panelist. A quick skim of Le Monde online today revealed no commentary. The question apparently passed below the radar of political analysts.
Yet the question is deceptively simple. When the debate is just the who, when and how of being French, the answers are all for others: memorize the words to the Marseillaise, abandon the Islamic veil, study French history, learn French grammar, adopt the values of the Republic. When the question is "comment vivre ensemble" everyone must answer. To me, that's a real debate worthy of the national stage, although one, alas, that not everyone seems to be ready for just yet.