Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal to strip certain criminals of French citizenship has brought the xenophobes out of the woodwork. Thierry Mariani, always a leader in this pack, has proposed extending the punishment to all who have been naturalized for less than ten years and convicted of crimes with sentences of greater than five years. The round numbers make short shrift of the constitutional problem, that any such law creates two classes of French citizens, those whose citizenship status is precarious and the rest--contrary to the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, which states that "all French citizens are equal before the law."

But these dérapages were predictable once the cat was out of the bag. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that they were intended. Each surenchère relaunches the polemic and distracts attention from other issues. And of course none of these measures--even in the exceedingly unlikely case that any of them are enacted, given the likely refusal of the Conseil Constitutionnel to accept them--would have the slightest effect on the "security" of the French. What proportion of crimes is committed by recently naturalized citizens (or wandering gypsies)? But this is the infernal logic of le discours sécuritaire: it is really the "national identity debate" redux. Besson failed in his mission by pretending to have a "debate." Sarkozy has now shown him how the trick is actually accomplished: you seize on some trivial fait divers, invoke the inalienable human right of self-preservation, and direct anger and fear at some disliked and defenseless element of the population, accused without evidence of imperiling the "security" of authentic citizens.

Self-righteous wrath is so much more satisfying than reason, and so less vulnerable to counterargument. For a president of the Republic to encourage it is the height of irresponsibility. Sarkozy is wont to sigh about the heavy burden of his job. He did so only recently in a return visit to shipyard workers. But he shows no sign of having wrestled with the gravity of his latest proposal. The burden of statesmanship having proved too much for him, he has reverted to the more familiar role of streetfighter. No holds barred. For the first time in his presidency, I am frankly appalled.