The debate that president Nicolas Sarkozy wanted over what goes to make up a nation is in fact shaking up the nation and throwing up plenty of questions. Does national identity necessarily involve a narrow view of immigration? Should the debate be centred on issues relating to Islam? Is there a way to keep it from being instrumentalised for political ends? In a piece published on 8 December in Le Monde, the French president sought to clarify the terms of the discussion. “National identity is the antidote to tribalism and sectarianism,” he writes. “This is why I called for a great debate on national identity. We must all talk together about this gnawing threat which so many people in our old European nations feel, rightly or wrongly, hanging over their identity, because if it is pushed under the carpet it could end up nurturing bitter resentment.”

Launched a few months ahead of regional elections, this debate is deemed by many observers a ploy to entice far-right voters. In Libération, Muslims denounce sweeping generalisations about, and the stigmatisation of, Muslims in France. Remarks sociologist Claudine Attias-Donfut in Le Monde: “Starting up such a debate implies that we are experiencing an identity crisis, which from my perspective is not the case. [...] By exaggerating immigrants’ troubles, whether to condemn them or portray them as victims, we are obscuring what is for the vast majority of them, all things considered, the perfectly ordinary reality of integration.” But “should we deny the self-evident fact that the question of immigration comes up in any discussion of identity?” asks political scientist Alain Duhamel in Libération. “How could we, seeing as immigration has always been part and parcel of the history of French identity? How could we so deny reality as to consider the new French identity without incorporating the permanence and specificity of immigration? France is a country with a practically continuous tradition of immigration, which sets it far apart from most of its neighbours, whether you take Italy or Spain, Portugal or Belgium, Germany or Great Britain, etc.”

Identity and exclusion

The problem is that “Islam has in many respects become the seismograph of Europe’s identity probing”, underscores Jean-Paul Willaime in Le Monde. Given that European Islam remains a minority phenomenon, the director of the European Institute of Religious Sciences stresses the “huge disproportion between the relative size of the Muslim population in Europe and the attention and concern it arouses”. This is due to the fact that, “as secularised as they may be, European societies are not yet thoroughly weaned of a geographic conception of religious affiliation, and the collective imaginations of nations, like that of Europe itself, are not entirely religiously neutral.” The national identity crises in evidence in many Western countries actually conceal a more profound crisis, “Europe’s identity crisis”, opines Adevărul.

The Romanian daily cites the “introduction of history tests for immigrants” in Great Britain, the idea of “citizenship with requirements”, i.e. a points system, in Italy, and the referendum on minarets in Switzerland as attesting to this phenomenon, which can by explained by the “discovery of the parallel societies” in which immigrants live. And yet, even if “its definition is by nature a process of exclusion”, identity is “an element one cannot do without”, argues political scientist Giovanni Sartori in El País. “Discarding it would be a serious mistake, since societies cannot function without a clear-cut and solid social fabric, and without it citizens and individuals would become utterly atomised. Unfortunately, Sartori continues, Western democracies “don’t face up to problems till they have already exploded”. And as to the integration of isolated communities within our societies, “we have no alternative but to reflect on the moral and political values on which we wish to base that integration,” he concludes.