Connect to share and comment

French identity debate: beyond burqas

As lawmakers considered a burqa ban, France debated identity, immigration and integration.

In his first prime-time television appearance of the year Monday night, Sarkozy defended the debate calling it “very dignified,” necessary and a mark of a country that speaks to its citizens.

"France is not a race, not ethnicity,” Sarkozy said. “It is a community of different people who together build a nation with values, principles, rights and duties.”

But not everyone has appreciated Sarkozy's effort. Jean-Francois Bayart, a researcher at Sciences Po, the political sciences school in Paris, told Le Monde newspaper last year “there was no such thing as French identity.” The reluctance to discuss the tensions raised by immigration meant the country was living in a state of “schizophrenia.”

“This is not innocent because we know that large parts of the national economy, such as construction, catering, the textiles industry, are based on the exploitation of clandestine immigrants,” Bayart said in an interview with Le Monde. “This feeling of fear was created; there is nothing objective about it. France has settled into this lie or at least into the denial of reality.”

In France, where the state does not collect data on race in accordance with its founding principle “liberty, equality, brotherhood,” the vigorous public debate over the integration of immigrants and minorities is a relatively new experience.

One example: French or African?

On the opening day of the online debate, the writer Marie Ndiaye won France’s highest literary award, the Prix Goncourt, for her book titled, “Three Strong Women.” In the media blitz, much was made of her African ancestry even though she was born in France, raised solely by a French mother and only met her Senegalese father when she first traveled to Africa in her 20s.

Incessant references to Ndiaye’s African background “make no sense” to the 42-year-old author now based in Berlin, who said in interviews that despite being raised 100 percent French, she found it ironic that she can seem foreign in her own country.

Her brother, Pap Ndiaye, a historian and sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Science, told the Christian Science Monitor: “For several years, immigrants and the children of immigrants have been targeted as threats to the French national identity. This may be a way to suggest they are not French or are not as French as they should be.”