It seems that the President of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, wanted to start a debate on national identity but didn’t seem to consider how this topic could be used by nativists, the far right and anti-immigrant bigot, this story in the Times should be a lesson to us all:
“A gathering of citizens in the eastern French city of Troyes has demonstrated the explosive nature of the “great national identity debate” launched by President Nicolas Sarkozy in an effort, say critics, to shore up support on the right.
About 100 people were seated in a hall to discuss what it meant to be French, one of dozens of debates on the subject being held around the country during the next few weeks. Laurent Bacari, a young schoolteacher, got to his feet.
Various speakers from the far-right National Front had been complaining that immigrants supported foreign football teams and flew Algerian flags at their weddings. One claimed that many immigrants did not know the name of the French capital, let alone the words of the Marseillaise, the national anthem.
“When I listen to you lot,” said Bacari, a wiry figure with dark eyes, stubbly cheeks and black hair, “I’m ashamed to be French.” One of his neighbours stood up and began haranguing him. “We’re all proud to be French and if you aren’t you should leave,” he shouted.
Soon the two were screaming at each other as Christian Rouyer, the local police chief who had organised the gathering, tried to call them to order.
A policeman ploughed into the crowd to stop the fight. As Bacari was being escorted from the hall, a man at the back began to sing the Marseillaise at full volume. He was dragged out by another policeman, singing “to arms, citizens”. Others in the audience joined in the Marseillaise and another man was taken away by police.
No wonder Sarkozy has been accused of playing with fire: if such scenes can occur in peaceful champagne country, whose inhabitants seldom work themselves into a froth about anything, the government can only wonder how things will go in the battle-scarred banlieues.
By the end of last week the much-vaunted debate had turned into a conflagration raging out of control. A website set up to encourage discussion had become a forum for brutal immigrant-bashing. About a fifth of the entries had to be erased.
“They’re not publishable,” Sarkozy was reported to have complained to aides, adding that the state-organised town hall debates were suffering just as much from “xenophobic insults”. “