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Controversies Surround French National Identity Debate

From the very start, the government-initiated debate about “National Identity”, staged on the internet and in local meetings, has had its critics.

The Observatory of Public Debates website, debatpublic.net, issued on Nov. 2 a slightly critical “little overview” of the official, French government website, debatidentitenationale.fr [Fr], launched that same day to facilitate the national debate on immigration and integration. And on Nov. 25, Panafa Blog gave a thorough insight into the various issues raised, under the suggestive headline “National Identity”: Eric Besson reheats old controversies (in French, English and German).

But, until the conclusion of the process, scheduled to culminate in a symposium on Feb. 4 (under whose presidency remains yet unclear), it seems less and less easy to separate dispassionate reflexion from the mere unleashing of xenophobic feelings.

So, without trying now to sort out among all these, let us only cast an eye on a few of the reactions to the debate.

Spreading rumors

Unsurprisingly, rumors have been flourishing since the first days of the process, including one that the management of the website has been “outsourced.”

As voiced as early as Nov. 8 in a post on Le cri du contribuable (The taxpayer's scream”) :

Le ministre de l’Immigration, Eric Besson, vient de lancer un vaste débat sur l’identité nationale. Le hic : la gestion du site internet a été confiée à une entreprise mondialisée [qui a un centre offshore au Maroc]. Le site internet de l’Identité nationale serait-il géré du Maroc? Ce serait un comble! En tout cas, le patriotisme ne fait pas partie des valeurs du ministère de l’Identité nationale, qui n’a pas confié la gestion de son site à une société française…

The Minister of Immigration, Eric Besson, has just launched a wide-ranging debate about national identity. The trouble is, the running of the website was entrusted to a globalized company [with an offshore center in Morocco]. Could the national identity website be managed from Morocco? That would be the last straw! Anyway, patriotism in not among the values of the Ministry of National Identity, who did not entrust the running of its website to the care of a French company…

And later this one, which first appeared on Google sidewiki, hit it big throughout the internet and especially on twitter:

Une rumeur persistante sur le web affirme que le site débat identité nationale serait modéré par trois Malgaches payés 100 euros par mois. Une “info” que personne n'a encore pu confirmer ou infirmer.

An enduring rumor on the internet claims that the national identity website seems to be moderated by three Malagasy people, paid 100 euros a month. A “piece of news” no one was yet able to confirm or deny.

Reflexiums comments, from Madagascar :

Ah oui ! mais que je suis bête, ca doit être un échange de bons procédés, les francais sous-traitent le débat sur l’Identité Nationale en France, et les malgaches vont sous-traiter les élections malgaches en France, donnant donnant hein ?

Yes indeed! how silly of me, it must be an exchange of favours, the French subcontract the National Identity debate [to the Malagasyans] and the Malagasyans are going to subcontract the Malagasy elections in France, quid pro quo, eh?

Denouncing slip-ups

Indeed, the Swiss referendum about minarets, the tower of a mosque from which the call to prayer is made, did not help to raise the level of the discussion, which may be mushrooming beyond the organizers’ hopes or expectations.

The blog Les mots ont un sens (“Words do have a meaning”), under the headline “From one slip-up to the next one, the national identity debate is going into a tailspin”, provides an anthology of

Des contributions ouvertement racistes sur le site du débat national sur l'identité française, des dérapages (contrôlés ou non) de personnalités politiques qui virent à l'aquaplaning… Les minarets suisses ont bon dos.

Overtly racist contributions on the national debate about French national identity website, gaffes (controlled or not) by politicians that spin out of control… blame the Swiss minarets!

and concludes :

D'amalgames en amalgames, on obtient finalement un énorme gloubi-boulga d'islamophobie et de racisme qu'on ne parvient plus à contenir.
[...]
Les exemples d'institutionnalisation du racisme ordinaire sont de plus en plus nombreux. Et cela ne choque visiblement personne.

With the growing hodgepodge, what you finally get is a gloubi-boulga (unedible cake, from a popular children TV series) of islamophobia and racism which can no longer be contained.
[...]
There are more and more cases of the institutionalization of ordinary racism.  And this obviously does not disturb anybody.

The groupe Claris, a “collective intellectual”, created in 2001 with the aim of “acting to clarify the discussion about security” shows its impatience by publishing a call to remove the Ministry of Immigration, signed by prominent French scholars:

[...] il est temps aujourd’hui de réaffirmer publiquement, contre ce rapt nationaliste de l’idée de nation, les idéaux universalistes qui sont au fondement de notre République. Nous appelons donc les habitants, les associations, les partis et les candidats aux futures élections à exiger avec nous la suppression de ce « ministère de l’identité nationale et de l’immigration », car il met en danger la démocratie.

[...] It is high time now to reassert openly, against this nationalist kidnapping of the idea of nation, the universalist ideals which are at the core of our Republic. We thus call the people, associations, political parties and candidates to upcoming elections to demand with us the removal of this “ministry of national identity and immigration”, because it endangers democracy.

Take action

Finally, examples might come from unexpected areas of the civil society. Blogger and French daily Le Monde journalist Eric Azan reports on his blog Veilleur de Jour :

Le débat sur l’identité nationale rebondit aujourd’hui là où l’on ne l’attendait et par celle que, bêtement, on n’imaginait pas dans une posture aussi radicale: Geneviève de Fontenay [...]
[...] Juliette Boubaaya, Miss Picardie 2009, rêve de devenir, dimanche 6 décembre, la première Miss France musulmane. Et l’idée séduit Mme de Fontenay : « Juliette [...], issue de l’immigration, petite-fille d’un grand-père algérien, elle brigue le titre de Miss France au moment où certains de nos hommes politiques interrogent sournoisement le pays sur ce qui forge l’identité nationale. A titre personnel, je me félicite de la présence de Juliette Boubaaya à l’élection du 6 décembre. Et entre nous, j’espère qu’avant de mourir, je verrai une Miss France maghrébine. Songez à l’impact qu’aurait ce vote. »

« A quoi pensez-vous ? » demande Lionel Laparade [de La Dépêche du Midi]. « À la claque administrée aux hommes politiques qui ont fait de l’identité nationale leur fonds de commerce, à la formidable réponse donnée, ainsi, à certains discours nauséabonds. Quand j’entends Besson, je suis indignée. Il manie la provocation de façon scandaleuse. »

The national identity debate is revived to-day in an unexpected place and by a woman who, foolishly, was not expected to take such a radical posture: Geneviève de Fontenay (chairwoman of the Miss France board) [...]
[...] Juliette Boubaaya, Miss Picardie 2009, dreams of becoming, on Sunday Dec. 6, the first Muslim Miss France. And the idea appeals to Mme de Fontenay :
“Juliette, who comes from immigration, the granddaughter of an Algerian grandfather, is seeking the title of Miss France at the same time our politicians slyly poll the country about what forges national identity. Personnally, I am very pleased about Juliette taking part in the 6. December election. And between you and me, I hope that before dying I'll see a Miss France from North Africa. Think of the impact of such a vote.”
“What do you mean?” asks Lionel Laparade [the La Dépêche du Midi reporter interviewing her]
“The slap dealt to the politicians who made national identity their stock in trade, the tremendous reply thus given to some nauseating attitudes. Whenever I hear Besson, I feel outraged. He uses provocation in a shocking way.”

(update : Malika Ménard, Miss Normandie 2009, was the one elected)

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