By ELAINE SCIOLINO
Published: March 30, 2007
PARIS, March 29 — France’s presidential campaign has been seized by a subject long monopolized by the extreme right: how best to be French.
The conservative candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, wants to create a ministry of “immigration and national identity” that would require newcomers to embrace the secular values of the republican state.
The Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, wants every French citizen to memorize “La Marseillaise” and keep a French flag in the cupboard for public display on Bastille Day.
The far-right candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, of the National Front party, chortles that his rivals have stolen — and therefore validated — his message of “France for the French.”
Some political commentators have accused Mr. Sarkozy of harking back to the darkest period in modern French history: the collaborationist Vichy government during the Nazi occupation. Ms. Royal, meanwhile, is being attacked by both her rivals and her own camp for manipulating symbols that historically have been the domain of the far right.
With the first round of the election 24 days away, the battle over French identity has overtaken discussion of more practical issues like reducing unemployment and making France more competitive.
On Tuesday, as if to underscore the tensions over identity, roving bands of young people threw objects at the police, smashed store windows and damaged property for several hours at the Gare du Nord, a major train station in Paris. The trouble started when an illegal immigrant from Congo jumped a turnstile in the subway and tried to punch a transit agent who asked to see his ticket.
The police shut down the subway and commuter train system, arrested 13 suspects and used tear gas before restoring order after midnight.
The shift to debating Frenchness is aimed in part at luring the right-wing vote away from Mr. Le Pen, who shocked France in 2002 when he finished the first round of voting in second place.
It is also an attempt to reassure jittery voters that France will remain an important power at a time when it is losing prominence in a larger European Union and a globalized world and struggling with a disaffected Muslim and ethnic Arab and African population at home.
“Resolving the identity crisis in France is a very serious problem, but both Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal have trivialized it in this election,” said Eric Dupin, a political scientist and an author. “Both of them are playing on the fears and the base emotions of the people.”
François Bayrou, the centrist candidate who leads the tiny Union for French Democracy party, denounced the “nationalistic obsession” that had infiltrated the campaign. “Every time in our past that we have wanted to go back to external signs, it has led to periods that are unhappy,” he said.
For the past few years, France has struggled with economic and cultural issues related to its immigrants. One is shared by much of the rest of Europe: how to stop the influx of illegal immigrants who drain a country’s economy and social services. A second is how to force French citizens of immigrant origin to obey laws, including those banning practices like polygamy and the wearing of head scarves by Muslim girls and women in schools and universities.
As interior minister before he stepped down Monday to focus on his campaign, Mr. Sarkozy tightened immigration laws and boasted that he had expelled tens of thousands of illegal immigrants and prevented others from entering. His pledge in 2005 to rid France’s ethnic Arab and Muslim suburbs of “scum” contributed to a three-week orgy of violence there.
Mr. Sarkozy, who has largely avoided the suburbs during his campaign, has criticized immigrants and their offspring who resist the French model of integration, saying it is unacceptable to want to live in France without respecting and loving the country or learning French.
He touched off the current debate in a television appearance on March 8 when he announced a plan to create a “ministry of immigration and national identity” if elected.
Ms. Royal called the plan “disgraceful,” adding, “Foreign workers have never threatened French identity.”
“Indecent,” was the reaction of Azouz Begag, the minister for equal opportunity. “I’m not stupid, and neither are the French,” he said. “It’s a hook to go and look for the lost sheep of the National Front.”
Simone Veil, a beloved former government minister and Holocaust survivor, found herself denouncing Mr. Sarkozy’s idea shortly after she endorsed him for president.
“I didn’t at all like this very ambiguous formula,” she told the magazine Marianne. She said a ministry for immigration and “integration” would be a better idea.
Mr. Sarkozy was unfazed. “I want the promotion of a common culture,” he said in reply to his critics.
Indeed, an OpinionWay Internet poll for the newspaper Le Figaro, splashed on the paper’s front page this month, indicated that 55 percent of French voters approved. Sixty-five percent agreed that the “immigrants who join us must sign up to the national identity.”
Although the poll was conducted using a representative sample via the Internet, not by using more reliable telephone surveys, it was widely cited as evidence that the French wanted a more restrictive immigration policy and that they wanted Muslims here conform to secular French customs.
But Mr. Sarkozy’s proposal has revived memories of the Vichy era. The idea of a national identity ministry has been compared to the General Commissariat of Jewish Affairs, which was created with ministerial rank under the Vichy administration. “Only Vichy developed administrative structures in their efficient way to defend a certain concept of ‘national identity,’ ” the columnist Philippe Bernard wrote in Le Monde last week. He said that the Commissariat, “even before being a tool in the service of the policy of extermination, responded to the objective of purification of the French nation.”
Some conservative Jewish voters, who were planning to vote for Mr. Sarkozy because of his staunch support of Israel, say they now are considering shifting to Mr. Bayrou.
Despite Ms. Royal’s criticism of Mr. Sarkozy, she followed his lead by wrapping herself tightly in her own mantle of nationalism. She started by encouraging her supporters to sing “La Marseillaise,” the national anthem and the rallying cry of the right, at the end of her rallies.
Last week in southern France, which historically votes for the right and extreme right, she called for a “reconquest of the symbols of the nation” from the right.
She said all French citizens should have the French flag at home, adding, “In other countries, they put the flag in the windows on their national holiday.” And she promised that if elected, she would “ensure that the French know ‘La Marseillaise.’ ”
In the end, both camps acknowledge that they are trying to appeal to voters on the right.
“Ségolène Royal is taking back the terrain too often abandoned by the left for ages to the right and the extreme right,” said a former defense and interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who supports her.
Mr. Sarkozy was more explicit. “Since 1983, we have the strongest far right in Europe,” he said this month. “We must not proceed as if it does not exist. I want to talk to those who have moved toward the far right because they are suffering.”
During a campaign trip last week in the Caribbean, where some of the region’s residents can vote in French elections, Mr. Sarkozy boasted that after he proposed his immigration and national identity ministry, his standing in the polls jumped.
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