A panel appointed by French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to review France's integration policies has urged the government to implement a "new form of secularism" that would raise the profile of Islam in public life—in order to improve the integration of Muslim immigrants.
Among a long list of recommendations aimed at "recognizing the richness of multiple identities," the panel says that public schools in France should begin allowing Muslim pupils to wear headscarves in class (clothing that has been outlawed since 2004), and that courses should be taught in Arabic and African languages rather than in French.
The panel also recommends a number of other multicultural changes that would provide greater recognition to the "Arab-oriental dimension" of France's national identity. These include changing street and place names, overhauling the history curriculum taught in schools and creating a special day to honor the contribution of immigrant cultures.
More notably, the panel says that authorities and the media should be prohibited from referring to people's nationality, religion or ethnicity in public, and that the government should create a new law that would make "racial harassment" a punishable offense.
The controversial recommendations are contained in a series of five documents that were discretely posted on the prime minister's official website in November, but only came to public attention on December 12, after an exposé by the French daily newspaper, Le Figaro.
Not surprisingly, the proposals to develop an "inclusive secularism" in France have sparked a firestorm of criticism.
Jean-François Copé, the leader of France's main opposition party, the conservative UMP, said in a statement that the proposals are "explosive and irresponsible" because they replace "the one and indivisible French Republic with a motley assembly of communities, ethnicities and groups of all kinds." According to Copé:
"This report is an attempt to make multiculturalism the new model for France. It would no longer be up to immigrants to adopt French culture, but for France to abandon its own culture, language, history and identity to adapt to other people's cultures...I cannot accept that we build a society where 'responsibilities' are completely replaced by 'rights.' French voters should know that in this report the word 'responsibility' appears only 13 times, while the word 'right' is repeated 440 times."
Copé also accused the government of using the report to deliberately drive voters towards the anti-immigration National Front (FN) party in order to weaken the UMP.
The leader of the FN, Marine Le Pen—who has attained record-breaking popularity due to her criticism of runaway immigration—said the report's recommendations are "a very grave provocation" and implementing them would be tantamount to "a declaration of war on the French people."
The negative reaction to the report has put the ruling Socialists on the defensive.
French President François Hollande—the most unpopular French president on record, with approval ratings well below 30%—has distanced himself from some of the more explosive recommendations contained in the report, which he says do "not at all represent the government's position." Hollande also denies that the ban on Islamic veils in schools will be reversed.
Ayrault, who originally commissioned the report in July 2013 to recommend ways to "get the republican model of integration working again because it has broken down," said there are no plans to drop the headscarf ban. "Just because I receive a report does not make it government policy," he said.
A woman in a headscarf and full-face covering at a demonstration in Paris. (Photo credit: Ernest Morales)
Nevertheless, the report's recommendations are supposed to form the basis of future reforms ostensibly aimed at better integrating Muslim immigrants. These reforms will eventually be put to a vote in the French Parliament sometime during 2014.
In the face of public outcry, however, Ayrault cancelled a public seminar that had been planned to discuss the report's recommendations, which will now be debated in a closed-door meeting tentatively set for January 9, 2014.
Other key Socialists have also distanced themselves from the recommendations, including Thierry Mandon, the spokesman for the Socialist group in the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament.
"I do not envision that we will return to the law on the veil," said Mandon, who compared Hollande and Ayrault to over-eager students who go too far and end up with "extremist" formulas that will lead to the "de-Republicanization" of France.
In any event, the report has opened yet another chapter in the long-running debate over multiculturalism in France, which has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
The debate pits the Socialist supporters of multiculturalism in France against the Conservative republican camp, which is concerned about the steady disintegration of French society due to mass immigration, and which is calling for the return to the traditional values of the French Republic.
Opinion polls show that a majority of people in France believe that multiculturalism has gone too far.
According to a poll published by Le Figaro in October 2012, 60% of French people believe that Islam has become "too visible and influential" in France and 43% consider the presence of Muslim immigrants to be a threat to French national identity, compared to just 17% who say it enriches society.
In addition, 68% of people in France blame the problems associated with Muslim integration on immigrants who refuse to integrate, and 52% blame it on cultural differences. The poll also shows a growing resistance to the symbols of Islam. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of French people say they are opposed to Muslim women wearing the veil or Islamic headscarves in public, and only 18% say they support the building of new mosques in France.
France has a long tradition of secularism in public institutions, especially in public schools where the absence of religion has long been considered essential to the country's ideals of equality and freedom of conscience.
In September 2013, the government introduced a "secularism charter" for schools. The document—which is to appear in a prominent location in all of the 55,000 public schools in France—would serve to remind students and teachers of a list of secular principles underpinning the separation of mosque and state.
Although the initiative has enjoyed a generally positive reception, many observers say they doubt Hollande has the political will actually to enforce secular principles in French schools, with or without a charter.
This skepticism stems from the circumstance that Muslim children constitute an increasingly large proportion of the 10 million students in the French public school system—and because Muslim parents make up an increasingly important voting bloc in French politics. Muslims, in fact, cast the deciding vote that thrust Hollande into the Elysée Palace in May 2012.
With major municipal elections in France coming up in March 2014 and European parliamentary ballots in May, speculation is rife that the flailing Hollande is seeking to leverage the debate over multiculturalism to further endear himself to Muslim voters.
But the French philosopher and essayist Alain Finkielkraut says multiculturalism and runway Muslim immigration are responsible for the destruction of French national identity.
In a politically incorrect interview with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel on December 6 to discuss his latest book, "L'identité malheureuse" [The Unhappy Identity], Finkielkraut says European elites have consistently misrepresented multiculturalism as the model for the future. Instead, he says, "mistrust prevails, communitarianism is rampant—parallel societies are forming that continuously distance themselves from each other."
According to Finkielkraut:
"Immigration used to go hand-in-hand with integration into French culture. That was the rule of the game. Many of the new arrivals no longer want to play by that rule. If the immigrants are in the majority in their neighborhoods, how can we integrate them? … Many Muslims in Europe are re-Islamizing themselves. … The left does not want to accept that there is a clash of civilizations."
Finkielkraut sums it up: "I am of the opinion that our generation's task is not to recreate the world, but to prevent its decline. … I become sad and feel a growing sense of anxiety. Optimism would seem a bit ridiculous these days. I wish the politicians were able to speak the truth and look reality in the face. Then, I believe, France would be capable of a true awakening—of contemplating a policy of civilization."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.