French Presidential Candidates Face Off Over National Identity
March 27, 2007, 09:09 PM
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With less than a month to go before voting begins in the French presidential elections, the controversy over national identity carried on over the weekend with the major candidates struggling to define their positions and score points off opponents.

Though among the first to condemn Sarkozy's "Ministry of Immigration and National Identity" proposal, Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royal spent much of last week changing tune — literally, as it happens — after polls showed a majority of voters support the idea. At two separate mid-week rallies, Royal surprised (and embarrassed?) supporters by closing her remarks with a rendition of La Marseillaise, France's national anthem. And it got better this weekend, with Royal expressing her sincere hope that, one day, all French families will have their very own drapeau to hang out the window come Bastille Day.

In a televised interview this weekend, Sarkozy described the Socialist candidate's about face this way:

"It's amazing! A week ago, Francois Bayrou and  Ségolène Royalwere saying I was wrong. With what we now know to be her characteristic sense of moderation, Mme Royal even said that it was disgraceful. And after having said this word, she gives an entire speech on national identity. [...] But I'm not angry with her. I think it's important that she understands."
Sarkozy has every reason to be pleased with himself. By provoking a debate over �national identity�, he picked a fight he couldn’t lose and which could only aggravate rifts within the Socialist Party. Royal fell for the ruse and so has spent the past week (dignity be damned!) singing the national anthem and praising the flag in a desperate attempt to convince voters that, no, she does not hate the nation. To the contrary.

Those of you wondering whether France is still a serious country now know the answer. With opinion polling and political marketing playing a larger role in campaigns than ever before, it’s not for nothing that these have been called France’s first American elections.

Never mentioned but always present is the memory of the riots which engulfed the heavily immigrant banlieus of France’s major cities in November 2005. Early on in the campaign, Le Monde warned of what it called the �mainstreaming of Le Pen’s ideas�. With France’s leading presidential candidates facing off over what were until recently Le Pen’s signature issues, this election is confirmation that the political center of gravity has indeed shifted to the right.

For French restrictionists, long relegated to the ghetto of far right politics, it’s a major discursive victory. On April 21st, French voters will decide if it's anything more than that.