France: A Referendum on National Identity

There is one thing every French citizen agrees upon: the second and final round of the presidential election will have far-reaching consequences. It will not just decide between two candidates, or two parties, or even two political or economic philosophies. Rather, it will settle the fate of France as a nation.

For clarification, examine the 18th district in northern Paris. It voted heavily for the left in the first round on April 22, and is poised to do the same in the second round. François Hollande, the socialist candidate, garnered 43% of the vote there, much more than the 28% he received nationally. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon received 15% there but only 11% nationally. The other left candidates received a combined 7% both there and nationally. All in all, the left won a staggering 65% of the vote in the 18th, about 20 points higher than the national returns.

Incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy took only 19% of the vote in the 18th; nationally he took 27%. Far-right contender Marine Le Pen won only 6.5% there, a huge difference from her 18% nationally. Centrist François Bayrou received 7.7% locally and 9% nationally. With the addition of 2% won by conservative dissenter Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, the combined strength of the local right and center amounted to no more than 35%, compared to the national take of 55%.

A completely different picture emerged in the neighboring northwestern 17th district of Paris.

There, Sarkozy was the undisputed frontrunner, with 44% of the vote. While Hollande lagged with 26%, Bayrou finished slightly better than he did nationally, with over 10%. Mélenchon stayed near 7%; Le Pen fell to 6%. The far left took 3%.

The right and the center took 60% of the vote in the 17th, while the left did not even reach 40%.

Politically speaking, why are these neighboring districts worlds apart? The 17th is a bit richer as a whole, a bit more bourgeois than the 18th, but there are both affluent and working class areas in both districts. The actual differences are ethnic and cultural.

The 18th is essentially a "neo-French" stronghold: a place where most inhabitants are immigrants (or children of immigrants) from non-European countries and where Islam is the dominant religion. Admittedly, two major tourist spots with a distinct French flavor -- Old Montmartre, the Disneyland-style artists' village near Sacré-Cœur Basilica atop Montmartre Hill; and Pigalle, nowadays merely a sex shop row -- are to be found here. But they are just enclaves in an otherwise increasingly alien environment.

To understand what the 18th district really is, one must examine everyday life. For instance, note the street prayers that Muslim Arabs and sub-Saharan Muslims have been routinely organizing on Fridays. Though an illegal practice -- it blocks cars and even pedestrian traffic for hours -- the socialist mayor of Paris and the police have had no option (so say they) other than tacitly tolerating it.

On the contrary, the 17th remains staunchly French in outlook. Its inhabitants, whatever their race, ethnicity, or religion, prefer France to be Western, Judeo-Christian, and democratic. They do not want it to become a post-Western, "globalized" nation. (Or, to use a formerly rude and now politically correct French expression: "Une société métissée" -- a mongrel society).

Quite remarkably, the 17th district today hosts -- along with more districts and communes in western Greater Paris -- the largest French Jewish community. Many of the local Jews are Sephardic immigrants (rather, refugees) from Arab countries who upon coming to France lived in the same areas as Muslim immigrants from North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa. They were forced over the years to migrate to areas where they could expect to be both physically and emotionally safer.

What is true of Paris is equally true of the rest of France, except that in many places the National Front gets a much larger share of the conservative vote. Anywhere the left is winning, the neo-French factor makes the difference. Anywhere the right is ahead, opposition to métissage and Islamization is the key mobilizing argument. The political class, right or left, does not like to mention it too loudly. Even Marine Le Pen sees to it not to dwell only on "national identity" matters, but rather to also run as a champion of the poor and the outcasts.

Still, this is the real issue. A Hollande victory on Sunday will resonate as a great leap forward for the neo-French and as the beginning of the end for traditional France. A Sarkozy victory will mean that the case is deferred for at least another five years.

Just how many do the neo-French number? Under French law which bars global and interlinked statistics to race, religion, or ethnic origin, it is very difficult to compute reliable figures. An additional difficulty stems from the special character of the French polity, which consists of France proper (European France including Corsica) and distant overseas territories from the French West Indies to French Polynesia. Technically, overseas-born citizens or their children cannot be referred to as immigrants, though most of them are cultural aliens in many ways and tend to behave much as foreign immigrants when they settle in metropolitan France.

A further difficulty: there are marked differences among immigrants, between Europeans and non-Europeans on one hand, and even among non-Europeans on the other hand. Some of them came to France to be French, some to turn France into their own thing.