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13 September 2010

Echoes of Vichy

With France back to business after the August break, politicians of the right are once again leaping

By Nabila Ramdani

It’s the rentrée politique in Paris and Nicolas Sarkozy, son of a once-impoverished Hungarian immigrant, is glowing tycoon amber after spending the whole of August in Cap Nègre, at the vast home belonging to the family of his Italian-born wife, Carla Bruni. The president and first lady had an entire stretch of the security-scanned Riviera to themselves throughout their long holiday, providing evidence that not being wholly French need not be a barrier to living the leisured Gallic dream.

It was particularly disturbing, therefore, that Sarkozy should have aimed his sternest pre-vacation rant at those of us who share a similarly cosmopolitan background. In a speech in Grenoble, he suggested that all immigrants, as well as French citizens of “foreign descent”, should have their nationality withdrawn if they are caught breaking the law. The trigger for the proposal was rioting in the city in mid-July, mainly by Muslim youths, who had taken to the streets after one was shot dead by the police following a failed robbery of a casino.

Ignoring the death in Grenoble and concentrating on the acts of car-torching that have blighted his entire presidency, Sarkozy said: “We are suffering the consequences of 50 years of insufficiently regulated immigration, which has led to a failure of integration.”

He also failed to mention the shooting dead by gendarmes of a gypsy in July in Saint-Aignan, central France, after which a mob stormed the town’s police station. Instead, he ordered the razing of dozens of Roma travellers’ camps and pledged to deport thousands of them back to Bulgaria and Romania.

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The former Socialist prime minister Michel Rocard has accused Sarkozy of mimicking the Nazi puppets of the wartime Vichy government. The collabos stripped “undesirables” of their nationality and later deported them to Nazi-occupied eastern Europe – albeit by train, rather than budget airline.

“Round-ups” was still an emotive phrase among the largely French-Algerian residents of the south Paris estate where I grew up and where “Sarko” was a byword for repression. As minister of the interior, he forged his reputation as “Le Top Cop” of the banlieues, reacting to trouble by sending in the paramilitary police. I often saw neighbours stopped and searched up to ten times a day; those who protested at such treatment were frequently detained.

Other deeply sinister measures in his law-and-order initiative include slashing welfare payments to those without official papers and increasing prison sentences for convicted immigrants. Sarkozy even wants to deny citizenship to alleged juvenile delinquents who were born in France to foreign parents.

If there was any doubt that Muslims might follow gypsies in future deportations, it was put to rest by Sarkozy’s own interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, who has added polygamy and the practice of female circumcision to a list of offences that he believes should merit removal of French citizenship.

This is of a piece with Sarkozy’s recent national identity debate. Intended to revive patriotism, it has instead become a forum for thousands of overt racists, who seek to connect the Muslim population (there are five million Muslims in France) with every crime imaginable, from shoplifting to terrorism.

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Foremost among the bigots are, naturally, members of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, whom Sarkozy is courting as his own electoral fortunes decline. Never mind that Article 1 of the French republic’s constitution states that everyone is equal before the law – demonisation of immigrants is now viewed as a major vote-winner. As Sarkozy’s government becomes increasingly unpopular, what better scapegoat for society’s ills than the menacing “newcomers”?

Associating people of “foreign origin” with violent crime is a favourite Sarkozy tactic. Consider the way he has successfully portrayed the burqa and niqab, face-covering garments worn by no more than a few hundred women in France, as symbols of all that is wrong with the country’s Muslims. Sarkozy’s crude arguments are presented in black-and-white terms, often literally. Just as views on a “burqa ban” have been transformed into a simple choice between Islam and secular France, so definitions of modern French citizenship may soon exclude Muslim lawbreakers.

There are more expedient political reasons for the stigmatisation of aliens, too. The Liliane Bettencourt scandal has – like Sarkozy’s administration – resumed after a summer break, with the president and his lieutenants still accused of accepting cash from France’s richest woman in return for “overlooking” suspected tax avoidance. Allegations, strongly denied, about a coterie of compliant politicians in effect dedicating their careers to serving the super-rich have certainly livened up this year’s rentrée, no matter how much Sarkozy tries to draw attention away from them.

In the meantime, the president’s image as a mould-breaking conservative of the Thatcher sort is fading as fast as his “bling-bling” suntan. As there are so few policy successes to support his campaign for re-election in 2012, many of us hope that Sarkozy will soon be allowed to spend even more time with his former supermodel wife at her family seaside villa.

Nabila Ramdani is a Paris-born journalist and commentator

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