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Konrad Yakabuski (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)


France slides right on immigration Add to ...

On Sunday, I found myself amid supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi gathered in Paris’s Place de la République. Unlike the pro-Morsi demonstrations that left at least 50 dead in Cairo that day, the Paris protest was a peaceful affair attended by families with children. Women in hijabs chatted as if at a social gathering.

What most struck me about this meeting of Muslim Brotherhood backers, however, was that it was occurring under the watchful eye of Marianne, the very symbol of French republicanism, whose statue has adorned this central Paris square since the centennial of the French Revolution. Between the “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” inscribed on the statue and the protesters’ calls for restoration of the Morsi regime, the tensions of modern France were plain to see.

France has long considered itself the original melting pot. Except for the few thousand Catholics who left for New France and the Protestant Huguenots who fled religious persecution, France has traditionally been a country of immigration, not emigration. Waves of foreigners blended with the locals according to a secular model of integration that implied voluntarily abandoning the ways of the old country. The model has been trumpeted by presidents as a defining feature of the Republic.

Today, however, most French voters no longer believe the appeal of republicanism is itself strong enough to lead recent waves of immigrants to choose assimilation. Public opinion favours coercive measures, embodied in the nine-year-old ban on religious symbols in public schools.

The High Council on Integration, a government advisory body, recently recommended extending the ban – overwhelmingly aimed at the Islamic head scarf – to university classrooms. “How can one suggest,” a HCI task force reasoned, “that the conspicuous display of a religious conviction in a place where knowledge is transmitted and discussed poses no problems?”

What seems lost on the republicans, however, is that as coercion takes the place of persuasion, young Muslims are showing even greater fervour for their faith than their parents. But with a population of five million Muslims expected to near seven million in a decade or so, few politicians appear willing to defy public opinion by abandoning the stick for the carrot.

Indeed, even the Socialist government of French President François Hollande is taking a hard line. Traditionally the champions of the carrot, the Socialists have seen some working-class support shift toward the extreme-right Front National led by Marine Le Pen. The contradiction is not as apparent as it seems. Ms. Le Pen advocates returning the official retirement age to 60 from 62 (a position dear to the Socialist base Mr. Hollande has abandoned) and a zero-tolerance attitude toward the accommodation of immigrants, which seems to fit the public mood.

Hence, in August, superstar Interior Minister Manuel Valls called the proposed extension of the ban on Islamic head gear “worthy of interest.” And a month later, Mr. Valls rocked the French political scene by saying that the estimated 17,000 Romanian and Bulgarian Roma living in illegal encampments in France “have lifestyles very different from ours” and that “only a minority of families want to integrate.” He justifed their continued expulsion, despite their right to circulate freely in Europe since 2007, on the basis of the “need to fight delinquent phenomena.”

There was outrage on the left. Mr. Valls’s language was almost indistinguishable from that of Ms. Le Pen, who denounces the “forays of delinquent nomads.” But silence by the unpopular Mr. Hollande was largely seen as a sign of tacit support for his popular Interior Minister.

Mr. Hollande’s Green Party Housing Minister, Cécile Duflot, called Mr. Valls’s remarks “beyond that which endangers the republican pact.” She compared them to those of defeated president Nicolas Sarkozy, who in 2010, associated riots in immigrant suburbs with “the consequences of 50 years of insufficiently regulated immigration that has led to a failure of integration.”

As Dominique Reynié, director of the Foundation for Political Innovation, observed in Le Monde: “Twenty years ago, Valls’s remarks on the Roma would have come from [Front National founder] Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 2010, president Sarkozy’s remarks were shocking. In 2013, worse language emanates from the Socialist Interior Minister. Almost 80 per cent of French voters agree with him. President Hollande shows his de facto support. It is a testimony to the rightward slide of the [political] landscape. All of France is hardening.”

Marianne cannot be amused.

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