Sarkozy's Anti-Immigrant Stance Draws Popular Support -- and Intellectual Rebuff     Print Email

The controversy about the harsh attacks on “immigrant crime” by French President Nicolas Sarkozy has spilled over into debates in the U.S. The influential New York Times lambasted the French leader for his comments singling out minorities. It was scathing about his threat to strip French citizenship from foreign-born naturalized citizens convicted of serious offences -- such as threatening the life of a police officer (or even pursuing Islamic practices such as polygamy or female circumcision). Such moves, the leading American newspaper said in an editorial, are “fanning dangerous anti-immigrant passions for short-term political gain.”

This “short-term” gain seems real in Paris. The latest opinion poll showed 80 percent approval ratings among the French for the denaturalization threat and also for the government’s plan to dismantle illegal gypsy camps throughout the country. The poll, by the reputable IFOP organization, was commissioned by the conservative French newspaper, Le Figaro.

The New York Times article referred to the French leader as “Sarko the American,” an allusion meant to be a jibe at the French President’s desire to evoke his personal similarities to American values at a moment when he seems to be guilty, at least in the Times’ eyes, of “xenophobia.” The Times' rebuff was mild in comparison to the harsh criticism of many prominent French liberals, some of whom have gone so far as to accuse the Sarkozy government of Vichy-style racism.

Ironically for the Times, the U.S. itself is witnessing the emergence of polemics with striking parallels to the current French debates about the limits of traditional tolerance and assimilation of minorities. For example, a highly charged debate has erupted about a planned mosque and Muslim community center in New York City near the “ground zero” site of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Prominent conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election, have publicly attacked the project as a triumph for radical Islam and a statement that is insensitive to victims of 9/11 and their families.

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Now a public remark by President Barack Obama has nationalized the debate. At a Friday night White House dinner celebrating the start of the Ramadan monthly fast, he told guests, including American Muslims, that Muslims have a right, as a matter of religious freedom, to build a religious center near Ground Zero. "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," he said to applause.

The next day, he seemed to backtrack, saying: "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque" near Ground Zero, he told reporters during a visit to the Gulf Coast. "I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding.”

A number of Republicans on Sunday folded the president's remarks into their election-year narrative that Mr. Obama, a former constitutional scholar, is out of touch with the American citizenry, according to the Wall Street Journal.

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Even foreign politicians are weighing in: Geert Wilders, a Dutch radical known for his islamophobic rhetoric and a small partner in the new center-right coalition government in the Netherlands, says that he will travel to New York to denounce the mosque.

Supporters of the project, such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who himself is Jewish), invoke the need for religious tolerance. But the case against the mosque at “ground zero” was eloquently made by Christopher Caldwell, senior editor at the arch-conservative The Weekly Standard. His argument is that a “mega-mosque” next to the spot where 2,700 people were “killed in Islam’s name” is not illegal but nonetheless grossly “insensitive.”

More broadly at the grassroots level, some small communities scattered across the U.S. are publicly coming out in opposition to the construction of mosques as a hostile encroachment. Their objections seem to be specifically anti-Islamic, according to a Times journalist who reported that  “at one time, neighbors who did not want mosques in their backyards said their concerns were over traffic, parking and noise — the same reasons they might object to a church or a synagogue. But now the gloves are off. In all of the recent conflicts, opponents have said their problem is Islam itself.”

In a separate (but perhaps not coincidental development), Germany has now moved to close down a Hamburg mosque used by several of the 9/11 hijackers.

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According to Joseph Joffe, editor of Germany’s Die Zeit writing in the Wall Street Journal, the authorities knew that devotees of the 9/11 killers have come from all over on a tour of jihadism that starts in Hamburg, then proceeds to Madrid, then to London, where dozens were murdered in the tube in 2005.  But for authorities, it was still watch-and-compile [information on potential new terrorists frequenting the mosque]. Why the raid now? This is where the Hamburg hub fits into the larger picture that now stretches across the Atlantic. Call it [fear that some mosques breed] "home-grown terrorism," fed not only by immigrants, but also by converts. They speak and look like the locals. This is the new generation of jihadis—in the U.S. as well as Europe.

Suddenly, the bad guys were our own, a startling twist in the story. According to intelligence reports, 11 young men, most with German passports, left for a terror training camp in March of last year [and some of them] are at large, perhaps going after German troops in Afghanistan.

So the preaching was hitting a raw nerve, and this summer the law changed. It is now a crime to hone terrorist skills in a foreign boot camp. The mosque was closed down because "young men were turned into religious fanatics there," according to Hamburg's interior minister, Christoph Ahlhaus.

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As the European Institute has frequently reported in its online magazine, European Affairs, and its blog posts, similar opposition to signs of a more high-profile Islamic presence in Europe has been escalating in many countries and recent elections.

Another striking echo of the French debate has emerged in the U.S. in the form of public calls for a constitutional amendment that would roll back automatic citizenship for anyone born on American soil. That right, enshrined in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution in 1868, was initially intended to protect the offspring of slaves in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Long considered a cornerstone of “settled law” in the U.S. system, the amendment is now under fire from many ultra-conservatives, who want to end automatic citizenship for illegal aliens' children who are born on American soil. This proposal has obvious parallels to the Sarkozy government’s threats about denaturalization.

The U.S. debate seems purely ideological: there is no realistic prospect of any Constitutional amendment on this issue, which would require approval by three-fourths of the nation’s 50 state legislatures. But for the moment it is proving to be a powerful political rallying-cry – as shown by the readiness of John McCain, the Republic Senator from Arizona, to consider congressional hearings on the question. McCain was long at the forefront of efforts to promote more equitable immigration policy. But now he is bowing to pressure on this issue from conservative activists ahead of the November election when his Senate seat is in play.

Sarkozy seems to be a similar example of a politician catering to populist anti-immigrant fears, in his case ahead of the forthcoming presidential campaign in 2012. Recent clashes and riots in the French provinces have been cited by the French president as evidence of the need for a crackdown against official indulgence towards the offspring of immigrants. A series of incidents hit headlines in France when riots occurred in Grenoble after a young male of North African descent was killed by police forces in June following a casino robbery. There were separate clashes between the authorities and gypsy protesters in other localities. Sarkozy has been able to exploit these incidents, his critics argue, to scapegoat immigrant communities. He needs the diversion, the critics say, because his ratings have hit an all-time low and his government is mired in scandals involving alleged collusion between his political party and France’s richest woman, 82-year-old Liliane Bettencourt, the heiress of L’Oreal, the world’s leading cosmetic company.

The New York Times’ story suggested that Sarkozy had been planning an anti-immigrant campaign to rally his political fortunes among French conservatives and was “ready for the spark” that came along with the incidents in June. The gypsy issue has now been added to the traditional tensions around the Muslim minority in France, and the Sarkozy government has now injected the notion that France has become a target for a gypsy influx. According to Pierre Lellouche, State Secretary for European Affairs, France cannot be expected to absorb the exodus of gypsies leaving Romania and other new EU member states that have been their traditional camping grounds. Only Hungary, an exception in the region, seems to have a proactive policy to assimilate its Roma minority, particulaly in Budapest.

Jennifer Wnuk