The fate of multiculturalism in France

The unprecedented electoral success of the far-right shows the resonance of extremist and nationalist discourses.

Nicolas Sarkozy campaigns for 2012 Presidential Elections in France
Nicolas Sarkozy's government has suggested foreign-born citizens guilty of murder should lose their citizenship [EPA]

Paris, France – What if the destiny of multiculturalism and free movement of people in Europe was being played out in France? If Nicolas Sarkozy wins the presidential election on May 6, he will have to fulfil a political promise unthinkable for a moderate European right-wing party just five years ago: withdraw from Europe’s open border zone unless “more is done to stop illegal immigration”. How did France get here?  

The results of the first round of the presidential election on April 22 came like an electric shock: Marine Le Pen, candidate of far-right National Front came third, with the most important results ever achieved by an extremist party in France since the Second World War. With 80 per cent of citizens taking part in the vote, there is undoubtedly a notable presence of extremist and nationalist feeling in the ideological and political landscape throughout Europe. Germany recently allowed the re-release of the controversial Adolf Hitler book, Mein Kampf, and Norway is currently witnessing the trial of Anders Breivik, accused of murdering 77 people last year with overtly racist motives.

These events reinforce the widespread fear that the old continent is increasingly giving the floor to far-right ideas. An initiative by the Rights, Equality and Diversity European Network (RED), co-funded by the European Union, displays the atlas of racism and discrimination in 17 European countries. The assessment states that, in spite of efforts, “almost everywhere there is a disturbing trend of increase of organised groups’ far-right extremist hate speech and violence/crime. Similarly, there is increased internet hate speech and diffusion of stereotypes and xenophobia into [the] main political public sphere.” Sure, Europe is currently undergoing economic and social crisis. But are those the only reasons for such increase?

Let’s focus back on France, where Marine Le Pen can actually thank the current president of the republic, who, for five years, has been preparing the ground for extremist thoughts to freely spread in the public space. And no, the crisis can’t explain everything: Those who voted for the National front candidate on April 22 do not always live in areas that suffer from a high level of immigration.

Trivialised xenophobic speech

When elected in May 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy promised he would be the gravedigger of the National Front. But this son of immigrants – his father arrived in France from Hungary during the Second World War – has made the fight against immigration the cornerstone of his mandate and his re-election, often against the economic interests of France.

It all started with the creation of a “ministry of immigration, integration and national identity”, whereby immigration was erected to the status of an “issue”. A series of anti-immigration laws were subsequently adopted.

The first ones targeted mixed couples who dared to marry. According to President Sarkozy and his government, a foreigner is obviously not in love with the person he/she has decided to marry. In the name of the fight against “white marriages” – also known as marriages of convenience – mixed couples who decided to legally bind themselves had to undergo embarrassing and somehow humiliating controls to prove that they actually share their lives together and love each other. This process could involve answering questions on intimacy, telling how you met your beloved one, and all kind of personal memories one wouldn’t easily share with an administration. Figures that prove “white weddings” represent such an overwhelming threat for the country have yet to be published.

Citizens who may not appear to have French nationality also have suffered from stigmatisation. When it’s not their religion that allegedly prevents them from fully integrating French society, they see the sacrosanct principle of equality of all citizens suddenly stop at their door. In a July 2010 speech in Grenoble, Sarkozy said that any French citizen with foreign origins who was found guilty of a murder of someone working for the public authority should be stripped of their French citizenship, in addition to the penal condemnation.

Last but not least, a 2011 decree signed by Sarkozy’s minister of interior, Claude Guéant, recently caused national and international stupor by making it increasingly difficult for foreign students who had graduated from a French university to obtain a work permit, and thus pursue a first professional experience in France. The justification given was that employers should hire French citizens before foreign ones. Mr Guéant probably wasn’t aware of the fact that the country has a great need for engineers, for instance, but fails to produce a sufficient number of engineers with French nationality. The measure, which is economically illogical, forced numerous French employers, who hadn’t found qualified French nationals, to part with these foreign recruits to whom they had given contracts.

What is striking with the anti-immigration rhetoric in France is that it is filled with stereotypes, which aim to scare the average voter and fail to show reality. For one, France is only the fifth country of the European Union in terms of number of foreigners living on its territory. And you’ll never hear Marine Le Pen or Nicolas Sarkozy admit that, although immigrants cost the state 47.9bn euro annually, their contribution to the public finances reaches 60.3bn euro, according to a recent study commissioned by the minister of social affairs from a group of researchers at the University of Lille.

Ideological victory

France is the only western democracy where a minister of interior, Brice Hortefeux, close friend of the incumbent president and godfather to one of his sons, remained in duty in spite of his condemnation for racial offences. During a political meeting, talking about the Arab origins of one of the participants, the minister stated, in front of cameras: “He doesn’t correspond to the prototype. We always need one [Arab]. When there is only one of them it’s alright. But it becomes a problem when there are too many of them.”  

On Thursday April 26, Marine Le Pen proclaimed an “ideological victory” of the right wing in the French political landscape. Some 64 per cent of Nicolas Sarkozy’s voters want a political alliance between their candidate and the far-right party. The campaign platforms of the latter include, among other proposals, the restoration of the death penalty, leaving the euro, leaving the common defence policy, the repeal of Schengen agreements, and the prevalence of French law over European law. Sarkozy no longer appears to think that Le Pen’s policies are so incompatible with the progressive values traditionally upheld by the French republic.

Growing concerns

The reason for the growing worry over the future of Europe is not simply related to the crisis. Contrary to what some politicians were quick to explain on the evening of the first round, it seems that the French who gave their vote to extremism do not suffer that much from the immigration scourge. French analysts have found that, while the latter represents a major concern for 62 per cent of National Front voters, areas where the party has received a significant number of votes do not have a particularly high immigration rate.

Yet, a real European hope remains, whose scope will be confirmed or refuted by the result of the French election. Like the tens of thousands of Norwegians who gathered yesterday to sing “my rainbow race”, the song hated by Anders Breivik, in these troubled times “it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness”.

Julie Owono is a freelance Cameroonian journalist and international relations consultant based in Paris. She blogs at Global Voices and is the Africa Desk Cordinator at Internet Sans Frontières, a French NGO which promotes online freedom of expression.

Follow her on Twitter: @JulieOwono