Commentary by Antoine Alhéritière – 17 October 2011
The upcoming 2012 presidential elections are by far the most discussed topic in France since… the 2007 presidential election. France’s appetite for politics has gradually increased since the start of the socialist party’s primaries last January, or what “PS” figures like to call an “innovative” candidate-designation process. In a more unadvertised fashion, the Sarkozy-led right-wing majority is also preparing the 2012 battle, with the current minister of agriculture, Bruno Le Maire, in charge of the President’s reelection campaign.
Although France’s traditional eagerness for deliberation is continuously fed by new polemics, the Presidential election is the best opportunity for the most sensitive topics to be discussed and for candidates to set their stance on those issues. In France, although the practice of political imprecision and diplomatic rhetoric is considered to be an art, come election time, for a candidate to remain vague on a matter spells out incompetence and cowardice. Sarkozy’s triumph five years ago resulted from his direct – even brutal – approach vis-à-vis France’s most painful and long-lasting societal fault lines.
The first article of the French Constitution insists on the equality of French citizens before the law of the Republic, with no regard to origin, race or religion. Because of these founding principles, ethnicity-based statistics are banned and the political behavior of a subgroup simply cannot be singled out. Theoretically, the vote of a French person, whether of Arab origin or not, is the vote of a French citizen. Nonetheless, the political positioning of French Arabs deserves some questioning at the very least, especially in the light of the last decade’s developments.
In the past ten years, two spontaneous events have traumatized French domestic affairs. First, the rise of an extreme-right leader to the second round of the 2002 presidential race, where Le Pen exploited a general feeling of exasperation amongst ordinary French citizens, blaming France’s problems on French Arabs and Muslims, and questioning their belonging in the national community. Second, the November 2005 civil unrest that spread across the “banlieues” and triggered biased identity interpretations, where many French blamed violence on the African/North African origins of the rioters.
Then Sarkozy came along. Nicolas Sarkozy believed that he had finally imported the American dream to France: he, the son of a Hungarian immigrant would become President and give everybody a chance, provided they “wake up early” and work “longer shifts”. The former Interior Minister also had an Arab woman in his campaign team. But the hopes Sarkozy carried with him died out since the first days of office. In fact, during his entire mandate, the President showed how little concern he had for the equality of citizens before the Republic. He started off by creating a Ministry of immigration and national identity, then tried imposing DNA tests on family reunification procedures, and lastly, planned to deprive French nationality from people of “foreign origin”.
Hence, French Arabs are most likely ready for change in 2012. While choosing the next president, their priorities are those of the French population as a whole: a significant improvement in life conditions, more social justice, and the need for ethics in the practice of power. Their more personal priorities and sensitivities are those of mutual respect, the undoing of increased racist rhetoric in politics, and their acceptation as equal French citizens, notwithstanding their cultural differences.
Marianne and Allah
A large number of French Arabs (remember, no statistics) are Muslims. Through politics they may express their legitimate expectation for free religious practice and improved practicing conditions. In 2003, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) was created by former Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy. The official purpose was to give a State-recognized and institutionalized frame to the French Oumma. However, the nature of this institution has been criticized for being in reality a tool by which authorities extend wider control over the practice of Islam in France. In effect, although in the past twenty years, the number of mosques and prayer halls have doubled (there were 150 in 1976, 900 in 1985, 1,555 in 2001, and 2,368 in 2011), many of these prayer halls were created by individuals and are not accustomed to receiving a large number of believers. In France, the state is forbidden to fund places of worship. Thus, many French Muslims find themselves practicing in small and run-down prayer halls or on the street.
In the most remote urban areas, the state’s inefficiency in fighting unemployment and promoting social cohesion has given way to the consolidation of religious institutions and practices as daily life structures.Both government and locally-elected representatives are seemingly stuck in between the popular support of religious groups’ demands and the vital imperative of secular policies. But sadly, the idea of secularism has been distorted and has taken the form of an institutionalized hatred towards Muslims in particular. Demagogy works both ways in the equation. As politicians simultaneously nurture the more sectarian structures of common living, and an islamophobic, anti-Arab rhetoric, real efforts for equal opportunity, republican integration and genuine secular harmony are lost in rock-bottom politics.
France and the Arab Spring
France’s foreign policy in the Arab world will have very little impact on the vote in 2012. Yes, commentators have well underlined that France’s military intervention in Libya was President Sarkozy’s last chance to make a comeback in the national opinion polls and convey the image of a “strong-tempered” leader. But when assessing five years of Sarkozy, the French won’t care remembering Gaddafi’s tent planted in the Elysée’s backyard nor Bashar Al-Assad walking down the avenue on Bastille Day.
Despite their cultural, religious and family ties with the Arab Maghreb, French-born Arabs are no different from their fellow citizens and show little involvement and solidarity with the wave of upheaval. Algeria’s qualification for the football world cup had sparked nationwide celebrations, whereas public rallies for the Algerian and Tunisian people were smaller-scale demonstrations, led by students, intellectuals and left-winged parties.
This year, Tunisian nationals living on French soil will have the historical occasion to reconnect with their country’s political destiny. The upcoming Tunisian elections have cut out two constituencies (Northern France and Southern) for the voters and make it possible for French-Tunisian binationals to participate in both French and Tunisian elections. One comment on a blog seemed to perfectly summarize how citizenship and plural identities can coexist: “I’m 37 and I’m French-Tunisian. I’ve been voting for the French elections since I was 18. What joy for me to vote for Tunisia for the first time! Our dear Tunisia!”
The Palestinian issue
The Palestinian ordeal is permanent, but answers stay banal. French diplomats most often look for a go-between solution, which makes no sense at all. When suggesting an observer status for Palestine, Sarkozy both denied the Palestinians’ right to a full member status and received an Israeli rejection for his proposal.
But would anyone do better? French presidential candidates all repeat the much too cautious and dreamy idea of a two-State peaceful coexistence. On this particular matter, only Marxist parties or the Mouvement Démocrate stand firm in condemning Israel’s unacceptable behavior.
There shall be no “Arab vote” in the French elections. Ideology matters no more as right and left have both taken the path of demagogy. But every year, the gap grows bigger between France as an ideal and France as it is. Inside French borders, the promise of equality remains a mere motto, and outside, the country has lost the power to stand for freedom and popular sovereignty.