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Home Opinion Multiculturalism: the three mistakes of Nicolas Sarkozy

Multiculturalism: the three mistakes of Nicolas Sarkozy

Laurent Bouvet - 08 March 2011

The muddled nature of the French President’s remarks on multiculturalism can only destabilise the already fragile social and cultural fabric of French society

When Nicolas Sarkozy declared “multiculturalism is a failure” during a special political TV show Paroles de Français, he made three mistakes. First, he used a complex concept alien to the French political tradition. Second, he made a tactical misjudgement in competing with the far right leader Marine Le Pen without reaping any benefits. And, last but not least, he further clouded the message he wants to send to his constituents on identity issues. His new statement contradicts his previous calls for diversity and “positive secularism”.

The president’s first mistake was a lexical one. Multiculturalism is a word alien to the French political vocabulary and thus is difficult to grasp: it has been mostly used in academic fields and does not sound like something real for most French people. And if it does, it is associated with something unpleasant and threatening such as the term communitarianism, which is also used exclusively in French political and intellectual debates. The French president even managed to muddle up the two concepts since he claimed “we do not want a society where communities coexist side by side”. Multiculturalism is also a complex concept with multiple references. It means the social fact of identity diversity in contemporary societies. It implies a lot of theoretical debates in different countries, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. And it takes shape in policies promoting cultural diversity and identity politics based on ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, linguistic or regional traditions and so on.

It is easy to understand how Sarkozy got the idea. He heard his European conservative counterparts Angela Merkel and David Cameron recently saying the same thing. The key to understanding this overall trend, which goes beyond political and national boundaries in Europe, is the rise over the past years of new forms of populist figures like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. His central rhetoric is based on the threat Islam poses for western values: basic liberties, gender and sexual rights, secularism, political and religious pluralism.

But, secondly, the French president also makes a tactical misjudgement. By claiming that multiculturalism has failed, he tries to hammer out an argument already outlined in his famous speech made in Grenoble last summer:

“We are paying the price of 50 years of insufficiently regulated immigration which has resulted in the failure of integration. We are so proud of our integration system. Maybe we need to wake up? To check what it has produced, what has worked and what hasn’t?”

The record high voting intentions for Marine Le Pen at the first ballot of the next presidential race and her rising political popularity in the recent opinion polls are the reasons why the president buttressed this argument.

The problem is that it is hard to believe this strategy will turn out to be successful. French voters face the social impact of economic recession and the tough stance on crime has not provided any tangible results. Unlike during the 2007 election, the voters don’t trust Sarkozy now. Using the same old story he used four years ago to win a significant chunk of the “National Front vote” will prove dangerous and vain. Not only because it is a one shot strategy, but because Marine Le Pen has enriched her political positioning. In addition to her rather classical far right anti-immigrant and anti-crime agenda, she now offers a much more left-leaning socio-economic agenda. This is combined with a more sophisticated version of her father’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. She now sets herself up as the sole protector of Jews, women and gays against the threats of Islam in the name of secularism! 

The French president’s third mistake also reveals the deep inconsistency of his “national identity” agenda. How can he now claim the failure of a policy he had himself called for? Indeed, who but Sarkozy, while Minister for Home Affairs and later as President, attempted for years to value a Muslim communitarianism? Who took stands against the “republican model” through calls for “positive secularism” and for religion as “superior ethics”? Who promoted telegenic and elitist “diversity” as a panacea to the social hurdles and discrimination faced by French people of migrant descent? Who regularly initiates and spins so-called “public debates” on national identity, history or Islam for electoral ends? 

This debate on multiculturalism has deeply destabilised the already fragile social and cultural fabric of French society. It targets the same French people of immigrant descent as the current tough anti-crime policies. This strategy does not provide any effective response to the problems arising with multiculturalism. If any failure exists, it is first the failure of an inefficient, inequitable and short-sighted policy; a fiasco which today, as political revolutions take place in countries from which many of French people of immigrant descent originate, also extends to France’s foreign policy.

A contribution to the State of the Left, a monthly insight report from Policy Network's Social Democracy Observatory

Laurent Bouvet is professor of political science at the University of Nice and adjunct professor of public philosophy at Sciences Po (Paris). He is also director of the Observatory of Social Democracy at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation in Paris

© Policy Network

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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