by Najate Zouggari
June 2009, Palais de Versailles: French president Nicolas Sarkozy declares in a major policy speech that the “burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.” Sarkozy does this while ignoring the fact that the women wearing this garment are as French as he is. In this fiercely republican discourse taking place in a monarchist palace he also declares that the burqa “is not the idea that the French republic has about a women’s dignity” while missing another point — this “idea” about women’s dignity did not allow French women to vote until 1944. French women earned their right to vote after Turkish women, whose access to European citizenship is now denied by Sarkozy.
By extension, the ideas the French republic has about its Muslim community can be understood through the 750 euro joke of Minister Brice Hortefeux: “We always need one [Arab, Muslim]. When there’s one, that’s alright. It’s when there are a lot of them that there are problems.” With these words, he echoed the presidential “inflammatory language” against minorities and the poor: Sarkozy once referred to people living in impoverished areas “scum.” But Nadine Morano (Secretary of State for Family Affairs) asked Muslims (not the President) to speak properly by saying: “I want them to love France when they live here, to find work and not to speak in slang. They shouldn’t put their caps on back to front,” as if all Muslims in France live in suburbs, wear either a cap or a burqa, and need to be reminded that France can never be their real home.
Those quotes are likely the most significant excerpts of a discourse that stigmatizes the so-called incapacity/unwillingness of minorities to assimilate themselves into Sarkozy’s vision of France. These official and nationalist conceptions are, for the first time in the history of the French republic, framed by a specific Minister and based upon the dangerous fantasy of “a national identity” which is indeed defined from the dominant perspective as a (not so secular) profession of faith to which everyone should comply. The political party “Les Indigènes de la République” who challenges the racism inherited by France’s colonial past has a motto: “Non à l’intégration par le jambon!” (“No to assimilation by eating ham!”). In a country where universities are deprived of post-colonial studies departments, this ironical stance means that minorities have clearly understood the racist injunction under the mask of so-called Republican and secular values. Those values or ideas have more in common with Philippe Pétain’s ideals of a “national revolution” than with the spirit of Human Rights: “Travail, Famille, Patrie” rather than “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”. In 2007 Sarkozy also promised reforms: “Work more to earn more.” This use of the reformist discourse by Sarkozy’s government barely hides a reactionary anti-social agenda.
With this in mind it is not very surprising to read the report issued by UN’s anti-discrimination watchdogs in which “the notable resurgence of racism and xenophobia” in the country is clearly pointed out. A few weeks ago, Sarkozy criticized traveling communities and the Roma. He also threatened to strip foreign-born nationals of French citizenship if they committed crimes — discriminative policy that reminds us again of Vichy’s legislation. This nationalist discourse expands while financial scandals involving members of the government are outed by the media; France’s wealthiest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, made an illegal cash donation to Sarkozy in 2007 paid to Eric Woerth who is currently the social affairs minister in charge of (reforming) pensions.
Despite a spectacular mise en scène of the few citizens of migrant descent in charge of mostly minor positions in the government, the recurrent debates about “French identity” are making a diversion among the public opinion. The nationalist discourses of the French Rolex president, backed up by the so-called “socialist” opposition on a slightly different tune, are in fact feeding more and more the shameful but effectively racist prejudices of la Patrie des Droits de l’Homme.
Najate Zouggari is a Paris-based journalist and translator.