RIA Novosti political commentator Marianna Belenkaya, 16 May 2007
On May 16, new French President Nicolas Sarkozy will assume office. He will have to
resolve difficult problems in most diverse spheres.
The most intriguing issues are immigration and policy in the greater Middle East
(all Arab nations, Iran, Turkey and Israel). They concern not only France but also
other countries, especially Russia that is facing similar difficulties.
Traditional ties with the Arab world, historically tangled relations with Israel,
Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, claims to a special role in Mid-Eastern settlement,
a search for a place in the world arena and one's own identity, and the impact of
the domestic political and socio-demographic situation on foreign policy - is this
about Russia or France?
In her article "Problems of immigration in France on the eve of the presidential
elections" (published on the site of the Institute of the Middle East) Russian
political scientist Irina Mokhova writes that French society is rethinking its
national identity. France proceeds from a state-nation principle under which to be
French a citizen should share republican ideas - his or her ethnic origin or
religion do not matter. At least, this was the case up to now.
Formally, France still adheres to this principle, but in reality things are
different. A considerable part of the immigrants preserve their ethnic and religious
identity and do not integrate into French society. Sarkozy, himself a descendant of
immigrants (Hungarians and Greek Jews), wants to determine who can claim to live in
Irina Mokhova recalls that in June 2006 the Senate passed a bill on tougher rules
for guest workers. The bill was presented by the then minister of the interior
Sarkozy. It set a number of new requirements for immigrants. They have to sign an
agreement with the state on admission and naturalization and must be fluent in
French. Automatic legalization of foreigners after 10 years of residence on French
territory was banned. Each application for citizenship was to be reviewed
individually and meet certain criteria. One of the decisive factors was how well
children of illegal immigrants had absorbed French culture.
Sarkozy's political opponents voted against the bill because it infringed on the
rights of immigrants and could escalate xenophobic attitudes in France. They
advocated bigger national and European spending on the upkeep of support and
adaptation centers for immigrants, and insisted on the return of the right to
legalization after 10 years of illegal stay in France.
In any event, French efforts to resolve the immigration problem are of interest for
Russia that is faced with a steadily growing flow of immigrants. The Russian
government does not have a policy on their integration. It seemed unnecessary since
the bulk of the people who came to Russia had been brought up in the same Soviet
environment as the Russians. But 15 years after the Soviet Union's disintegration
were enough to destroy what its citizens had in common, including the Russian
language. Not infrequently, immigrants' children do not speak Russian, or if they
do, they are illiterate and find it difficult to study at school. But this is just
the tip of an iceberg.
Naturalization is an urgent problem both for Russia and France, and the rest of
Europe for that matter. How to integrate new arrivals into society? Are they the
only cause of the exacerbating identity problem?
We should not forget, either that the immigration issue is closely linked not only
with domestic security, but also with foreign policy.
Some French and other media have labeled Sarkozy an Islamophobe for his attitude to
immigrants and refusal to accept the idea of Turkey's EU entry. Incidentally, the
Turkish problem is absolutely consonant with the immigration issue. It boils down to
the same question of identity, but on the European rather than French plane, and to
the same integration problem.
A number of Muslim countries are wary about Sarkozy's Islamophobic image, all the
more so considering his Jewish roots and "friendship with Israel." Many fear
Paris-Washington rapprochement, which is bound to tell on the situation in the
Middle East. But the U.S.-French alliance existed under Jacques Chirac. Paris
objected to the war in Iraq, was more reserved on the Iranian issue but teamed up
with Washington on Lebanon and Syria.
Chirac's France proceeded from its national interests and there are no grounds to
think that the new president will give up on that.
Nevertheless, Sarkozy is faced with the conundrum - how to consolidate the French,
parry the challenges of European integration, keep the balance between the Islamic
world and Israel and consider the interests of the French Muslim and Jewish
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily
represent those of RIA Novosti. -0-