In France, an unnecessary debate begins to feel necessary

Last month, the French government announced the beginning of what it called a “great debate on national identity.” I discussed aspects of that debate here.
Debates about momentous issues pertaining to race, ethnicity, and/or national identity may sound worthwhile. However, when the government initiates and sponsors them, they generally have little value other than demonstrating who has the power to dictate and control the terms of the discussion. Recall President Clinton’s “national conversation” about race, for example.
French Muslims have quickly grasped this reality. Seizing upon a minor instance of vandalism directed against a mosque in a small town near Toulouse, they are claiming that the debate over national identity is encouraging such acts. According to the French Council for the Muslim Religion, “the exploitation of these debates by some people generates a real danger of stigmatization against French Muslims.” Similarly, a Muslim leader in the town where the vandalism occurred claims that “the national identity debate has stoked tensions” and has “given ideas to extremists” or else caused them to “act on anti-Muslim ideas” in ways they otherwise would not have done. Never mind that, as the Washington Post points out, “anti-Muslim vandalism has long occurred occasionally in France.”
The Socialist Party is duly playing along. It has called on President Sarkozy to close down the debate before it causes further damage.
The only less thing worse than a government sponsored debate about an inflammatory issue is the preemption of such a debate by an interest group based on claims that debate is unhealthy. If the combination of French Muslims and opportunistic politicians succeeds in closing down the formal debate, they will have told us plenty about who has the power to dictate and control the terms of the discussion of national identity in France. And arguably, they will have told us plenty about the parlous state of French national identity.

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