French election flirts with far right as candidates fly the flag

FRENCHNESS has emerged as one of the dominant themes in the French election battle, as the two main contenders jockey to prove their patriotic credentials.

The conservative candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, wants to create a ministry of "immigration and national identity" that would require newcomers to embrace the secular values of the republican state.

Meanwhile, Socialist candidate Sgolne Royal wants every French citizen to memorise 'La Marseillaise' and keep a French flag in the cupboard for public display on Bastille Day.

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The spat has come in the wake of violence in the north of Paris last week and renewed questioning over the meaning of Frenchness and how much immigrants should assimilate.

However, it has also awakened uncomfortable wartime memories, and led to accusations the candidates are straying on to territory traditionally monopolised by the extreme right-wing of French politics.

Sarkozy has been accused of harking back to the darkest period in modern French history: the collaborationist Vichy government during the Nazi occupation. Royal, meanwhile, is being attacked for manipulating symbols that historically have been the domain of extremists.

The National Front candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, claims his rivals have stolen - and therefore validated - his message of "France for the French".

With the first round of the election 21 days away, the battle over French identity has overtaken discussion of more practical issues like reducing unemployment and making France more competitive.

Last Tuesday, as if to underscore the tensions over identity, roving bands of young people threw objects at the police, smashed store windows and damaged property for several hours at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris.

The shift to debating Frenchness is aimed in part at luring the right-wing vote away from Le Pen, who shocked France in 2002 when he finished the first round of voting in second place.

It is also an attempt to reassure jittery voters that France will remain an important power at a time when it is losing prominence in a larger EU and a globalised world and struggling with a disaffected Muslim and ethnic Arab and African population at home.

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"Resolving the identity crisis in France is a very serious problem, but both Nicolas Sarkozy and Sgolne Royal have trivialised it in this election," said Eric Dupin, a political scientist and author. "Both of them are playing on the fears and the base emotions of the people."

Sarkozy, who has largely avoided the suburbs during his campaign, has criticised immigrants who resist the French model of integration, saying it is unacceptable to want to live in France without respecting the country or learning French.

He touched off the current debate in a television appearance on March 8 when he announced a plan to create a "ministry of immigration and national identity" if elected.

Royal called the plan "disgraceful," adding: "Foreign workers have never threatened French identity."

"Indecent," was the reaction of Azouz Begag, the minister for equal opportunity. "I'm not stupid, and neither are the French," he said. "It's a hook to go and look for the lost sheep of the National Front."

Sarkozy's proposal has revived memories of the Vichy era. The idea of a national identity ministry has been compared to the General Commissariat of Jewish Affairs, which was created under the Vichy administration.

Some conservative Jewish voters, who were planning to vote for Sarkozy because of his staunch support of Israel, say they now are reconsidering.

Sarkozy is unperturbed. "I want the promotion of a common culture," he said in reply to his critics.

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Indeed, a poll for the newspaper Le Figaro this month indicated that 55% of French voters approved. Almost two-thirds agreed that the "immigrants who join us must sign up to the national identity".

Both camps acknowledge that they are trying to appeal to voters on the right.

"Sgolne Royal is taking back the terrain too often abandoned by the left to the right and the extreme right," said former defence and interior minister Jean-Pierre Chevnement, who supports her.

Sarkozy was more explicit. "Since 1983, we have the strongest far right in Europe," he said last month. "We must not proceed as if it does not exist. I want to talk to those who have moved toward the far right because they are suffering."

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