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Religion and Society

To be or not to be or France’s quest for an identity

Questions over the burqa, the Republic, Islam and immigration have led the French government to start a debate last fall on France’s national identity, one that has proven quite controversial.

A peculiar atmosphere has prevailed in Europe for the past few months. Minarets have become an issue in Switzerland; the same is true for the burqa in France, immigrants in Italy, and Islam in the Netherlands and Denmark. Everywhere, fear is shaping the public debate: fear of immigrants, fear of Islam, fear of communalism. Even though, discussions are defined by distinct national histories, emotions are the same, as people feel threatened in their identity by that of someone else.

 

 

 

In France (no surprise here), the state has taken charge of the issue. It has done it two ways. First, it has launched a broad debate over the country’s national identity under the auspices of a department whose name is highly motivated: the Ministry of Immigration, Integration and National Identity. Indeed, the minister in charge wants the nation to have a “check-up” to see what it means to be French in 2010. “Identity” rather than the Republic or living together is the issue at stake.

 

 

 

By giving prefects the mandate to organise the debate, the issue has been framed in terms of public security, a choice that hints at the political calculations that are behind it. Indeed, it is ludicrous to have law and order officials in charge of discussions on whether or how people can live together. As if having French prefects issue identity cards was not enough, now they are expected to be philosophers as well.

 

 

 

Asking the French reflect upon who they are has sparked a vigorous debate in the press and online. For some, the whole thing is but a ploy ahead of the upcoming regional elections; for others, it can serve as the basis of an important debate. Nonetheless, it is clear that it has raised fears about xenophobia, especially when the government said it might ban the burqa from the public space. After that, the debate took off in all sorts of directions, led by the media, whose modus operandi tends to be emotions-driven. Despite efforts by some intellectuals to distinguish the trees from the forest, fear and confusion over national identity, the burqa, the Republic, Islam and immigration have reigned.

 

 

 

France is not alone in facing this kind of debate. Since 2000, the issue has increasingly taken centre stage; a number of factors explain why. First, European countries tried to adopt a single constitution for the Union and ended up bogged down in a debate over the continent’s Christian roots. Then came 9/11 attacks and the rise of Islamist terrorism, at a time when immigration to Europe became a mass phenomenon and raised questions about cultural pluralism. Tensions increased further when young Europeans found themselves gradually unable to get good steady jobs and incapable of shaping their own future. Eventually, old ideas re-emerged about inter-mixing, scapegoats and integralism. For some, old identities were making a comeback, supported by new ideologues.

 

 

 

In such a context, every day now seems to bring a new paradox. In France, police are making it harder for French citizens born abroad or from foreign parents to renew their identity papers at a time when the nation’s president is for the first time a first-generation Frenchman. Unlike Americans, who view their many (communal) identities and their one (national) identity as complementary, the French find them incompatible.

 

 

 

This explains why it is so hard to talk about the public role of religion in a country where the separation of state and religion, a distant offspring of the Edict of Nantes, evolved from a protective attitude towards pluralism to one opposed to any reference to cultural and religious traditions.

 

 

 

Oddly, one notion is missing from this debate, one that has defined for the past two centuries France’s social cohesion, independent of distinct social, ethnic or religious affiliations, namely the notion of citizenship. Odd, indeed.

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