When Switzerland decided to ban the construction of minarets – nothing more than the Muslim equivalent to the christian belltower – it was not without a cacophony of responses from both sides of the Alps, whether they supported the Swiss in their decision to “preserve their identity”, or in their vehement condemnation of what they consider to be an infringement to the freedom of religion. Regardless, Switzerland not being a member of the European Union, this decision is not going to bleed all over Western Europe. Yet, similar decisions have been taken – in Ireland, for instance, where a South Dublin neighborhood complained that the call of prayer disturbed their peace – or are threatened to be taken, all in the name of this “identity”, which I can only understand as being “Judeo-Christian identity”.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who loves nothing more than being on the spotlight, discussed the topic in a long-winded editorial in leading French newspaper Le Monde today, with his habitual rhethoric: walking around the topic in circles and well-crafted sentences whilst never touching the ground on what is going to be not just the debate, but most possibly the conflict of the next decade. Slightly overshadowed by Copenhagen, the question of French – and European – identity is raised in a way that does not bring any answers. More questions, yes. Answer, we may have to wait for the next election in 2012.

In the first part of the editorial, Nicolas Sarkozy manages to question the referendum itself, implying that the process has been mocked by neighboring nations with longstanding traditions of representative democracy. Could a decision be considered null and void, unconstitutional, or liberticide if taken by referendum? What could be more at praise than direct democracy when the size of the nation and the density of the population makes it applicable? I am more than skeptical, considering the debacles in California, Maine, Florida, ad lib, in which referendum have enabled the majority to push the minorit(ies) back into the (proverbial) closet. Western Europeans, as depicted by Sarkozy, “are welcoming, are tolerant, it is in their nature and in their culture.” This is not a battle of ideas. This is a battle of words.

Only two years into his four-year long mandate and his new creation, the Minister of Immigration and National Identity, created controversy, hatred, and among all, sparked a lot of tension between the Muslim community – who felt targeted and specifically led to believe they were unwanted – and the powers that be. Between the 2006 riots and today, nothing much changed in the kingdom of France, except the willingness to create a special kind of Islam, French Islam, an Islam that would respect France’s tradition of secularism, a republican value inherited from various revolutions and resulted in a bill crafted no later than 1905 and guaranteed a strict, uncompromising and irrevocable separation of Church and State. Any Church. Any State. Elevated to “principle of constitutional value”, France’s “laicite” has often been misunderstood by its non-secular counterparts, who mistook secularism for godlessness. So far, France’s secularism is what protected the country from a crisis of culture and identity when the ticking bomb of its immigration policies exposed to the wide world that its infamous “assimilation” was nothing more than a lie: France is not a melting pot, just an over simplified juxtaposition of religions, cultures, beliefs, holding onto their traditions so tightly we can hear the foundations of the Republic crack under its burden.

Brice Hortefeux, the first Minister of this extremely obscure National Identity ministry, only managed to illustrate himself through repeated extraditions and much-publicized racist remarks in the press. Changing him with former left-wing leader Eric Besson, who switched camps during the 2007 elections, Nicolas Sarkozy is hoping to place the public opinion in his favor.

National identity is the antidote to communautarism and tribalism. It is precisely for this reason that I wished for a great debate on national identity.  This grinding threat so many people are feeling in our great and old european nations, be they right or wrong, are menacing their identity, we must talk about this together if only not to repress this feeling that may give birth to resentment.

In regular talk, Nicolas Sarkozy wants everyone to come together and debate on whether our “identity” includes the respect of Islam and its traditions, otherwise we might have to face that clash of civilizations Samuel Huntington warned everyone against, until terribly defeated by historian Edward Said who sadly died without knowing that the world of the third millenium would once again place its power and ressources in the hands of ignorants driven by fear.

national identity: er, no thank you.

But ever since this ministry has been created, no debate has ever taken place, and the words “national identity” are being tossed around at every possible occasion without having any solid meaning attached to them. How can one define an identity in a country with a history so complex and so intertwined as France’s? From world wars to imperialism, to wars of colonialism to independance and enlightment, France has known waves of immigration and emigration, ethnic cleansing and commitment to human rights, leader of the European Union while digesting a slow process of european expansion.

Truth is, an entire generation of French citizens, born on French soil and educated in French schools, are feeling entirely disenfranchised and perhaps even deprived of their civil rights. Anyss Arbib asked the question so strongly and painfully: what does it mean to be French but a product of first, second or third generation of immigration? What does it mean to be French when you practise a religion that is not in France’s tradition? Who is French, and who is not? Nicolas Sarkozy, no matter how long his editorial – four columns – never answers this question. He simply says,

Any man of belief, regardless of said belief, or faith, everyone must keep away from obnoxiousness and provocation.

The obnoxiousness reference here is from my translation: here Nicolas Sarkozy refers to a law on “ostentatious signs of religion” banned in public buildings (from public schools to government buildings) after a 1994 reaction from two Muslim girls expelled from a public school for wearing the hidjab. The line between what is ostentatious and what is not, what is a regular duty for a believer and what is an add-on for an overzealous practicioner remains blurry. Once again, the Muslim community felt targeted, more than the Christians, the Jewish, or the minority of other religions who had until then kept quiet. Violences between Jews and Muslim rose in urban zones, as a pathetic paragon to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without anyone calling them “ostentatious signs of religion”. Who is provoking who? Who started who over?

Sarkozy ends his editorial by saying he welcomes Muslims, but

in our country in which Christian traditions have left such a deep mark, where Republican values are an integrant part of our values, everything that could be felt as a defiance against those values will condemn the practice of a french Islam to a failure, an Islam that must find within itself the roots of its integrations and the common values that could tie it to our culture.

It is no longer “national identity”, but “national culture” now. We have moved onto an entirely different ground.

It is not without a certain sneer that the reader will note that next to those Republican values so close to Sarkozy’s heart, and so deeply embedded into France’s legal system, are standing Christianity, side-by-side, as an equal to the Constitution, as an equal to a nation and a culture that pledged to remove any faith from the public debate. Long gone are the days when then-MP Christine Boutin shocked both the political community and the public opinion for holding a Bible up high whilst voting against civil unions. There is no clarity in this editorial, whether Sarkozy is trying to preserve Europe’s Judeo-Christian traditions – and would therefore renegade Turkey from entering Europe – or whether he simply acknowledges a history and a cultural heritage that can not simply be forgotten and wiped out in the name of a recent outnumbering religion.

So, here we are: no answers on what being French means, except it means the constant dilemma between secularism and christianism, between acceptance and tolerance, between integration and immigration, between assimilation and rejection. Not only must any country in the world unite against the rise of muslim fundamentalism – there is no single doubt about that – but Europe now has to decide whether secularism means what it technically implies: that even the Church steps down and bows before the Constitution, the only supreme value on which every French citizen pledges their allegiance.  Leaving the options wide open, as any failing leader would do, it is now up to the French Muslim community to regulate themselves and understand that they are alone in their fight against isolationism, ghettoism, radicalism, and racism. Good luck with that.