The country that brought us existentialism is having an existential crisis.
For months, the French government has been pushing a new series of debates regarding French identity. Public meetings on the topic took place.
As waves of immigrants, primarily from northern African countries, flood into cities across the country, the government hoped to create some sense of national unity, a sense of what it means to be French in a time when the face of the country is evolving dramatically.
French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and his Immigration Minister Eric Besson had big plans for this. There was supposed to be fanfare. There was supposed to be pride.
But the announcement of new plans came with a whimper.
French citizens increasingly spurned the idea as the discussion grew more racist and xenophobic. Anti-Islamic sentiments, an ever-present reality in France, surfaced.
With upcoming regional elections, even Sarkozy started distancing himself from the debate.
The big plan to promote national identity, released early last week, includes signing a vague “French values” statement, which will be drafted by a government-selected committee of “experts,” according to a BBC News report.
French flags will fly and the national anthem will be sung at every school across the country.
New immigrants will be required to take language and gender equality courses.
All of this comes during a week when the immigration ministry has come under international scrutiny after Reuters reported that a man from Morocco was denied French citizenship because he failed to “respect the rights of women” by forcing members of his family to wear a niqab, the full facial and body veil.
The French government is pushing measures to ban any sort of facial or body covering for women for religious purposes, a move targeted at any of the traditional Muslim body coverings.
Amid this debate, the main question still hasn’t been answered: What does it mean to be French? At a time when the economy, unemployment and strikes should be at the forefront of the national consciousness, this is the real question being asked.
It started out as a debate. An honest debate.
But now, it’s bigger than that. It’s about who gets to call himself or herself French.
If only Sartre could see his country now.