August 06, 2006
Sarkozy, Lebanon & French Arabs
[Editor's Note: Our occasional contributor Shaheen sent us this interesting note on Euro-Arab developments re Lebanon and French policy]
French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy's recent remarks about Lebanon (for those who don't understand French, he's basically siding with Israel) infuriated quite a few French Arabs (once more). Yet, the ascending interior minister and probable next president is the story of a big failure from French Arabs' part, first and foremost.
I will use Arabs or Muslims indiscriminately here because the overwhelming majority of French Arabs are Muslims and vice versa.
When Sarkozy started building his image as an active and willing statesman, one of his first actions was to build the French Council for the Muslim Faith. In French Jacobin politics that was a risk for which many blasted him despite his success. Creating a representative organ for French Muslims has been tried by many governments before him and all broke their teeth in the process. The CFCM is far from being perfect, those who were eligible to vote were nominated by attendance to mosques (thus excluding the vast majority of French Muslims) and representation set to be proportional to mosques' surface area. The Union of Islamic Organisations of France won the majority which further embarrassed the government, and made it force on the association a president of its own, Dalil Boubaker, disliked by French Arabs in general. The mandate of the council was confined to religious issues, most of which are not the biggest concerns to the millions of French Muslims. But it was definitely a step in the right direction for them as they've always been off policy radars despite making up to 10% of French population. An institution like the CRIJF might have been more appropriate, but nothing, except the usual lack of individual initiative that permeate French and Arab societies, prevents French Muslims from creating such an institution. We can see here the limits of top-down approaches that usually characterize solutions and reforms brought to solve Arab/Muslim related issues too.
In any case, the creation of the CFCM didn't earn Sarkozy any significant support from Arabs. In more mature minorities, such a step would have probably been received with a bit more vocal "we thank you for this first step and we encourage you to go further as we need more". Such a reaction sends a signal that it's the way to go to win favors in that voter base. Not only Arabs didn't proceed that way, but the tune was to an obsessive irrational anti-Sarkozy trance, with him symbolizing the root of all Evil in French Arab issues. His original sin? Be a conservative French interior minister. Many Arabs would come up with the question of illegal immigrants expulsions then when pressed to give a reason for that obsessive hatred. But that's something that any interior minister did, whether left or right, and the explanation lacks consistency. French Arabs, probably because of the original working-class background of the overwhelming majority among them, tend to bear a prejudiced grudge against Conservatives for anti-immigration actions and be very amnesic about them when they come from the Left.
From Sarkozy's point of view, that body of voters is lost whatever he does. The CFCM has not evolved since its creation, and Sarkozy's controversial proposals in favour of affirmative action which could have gained some momentum are totally forgotten. They simply didn't catch among the targeted audience. His words about Lebanon and Israel angered many Arabs today, but why should he care? He's shunned by them anyway, and positions on ME's issues are not likely to affect other constituencies besides the very small Jewish minority. Now he's seducing extreme right-wingers votes and he's doing it well. He's taken a perceived anti-Arab direction in general and he displays toughness on security and immigration in general. But he does so while being careful not to be too politically incorrect and alienate the classical right. Whether he would have done so or not regardless of Arabs' support is not the point. Nobody can guess, so the "I told you so" crowd can as well be answered with the "self-fulfilling prophecies" argument.
So Sarkozy bridged part of the gap between conservatives and xenophobes that weakened the classical French right. By doing so, he's built a voter base large enough to make him the likely next conservative president. And unlike Jospin who lost Arab votes precisely after infuriating them by his statements against Hezbollah - the Sarkozy right-wing base is strong enough not to need Arabs as referees and there will probably be no conjunction of factors which could make Arab votes such a key factor again for the 2007 elections. All the talk about an Arab voter base which suddenly appeared in the aftermath of the 2002 election and on which Arabs could have capitalized is gone. Despite more Arab-related arguments against Sarkozy in 2007 than against Jospin in 2002, Arabs will be virtually powerless. Probably a proof that a spontaneous success gotten by luck more than by political organization and maturity dies away as quickly as it comes.
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Posted by: Frandroid Atreides at August 6, 2006 01:00 AM
Good article. I suppose the very existence of an 'Arab voter base' presumes an Arab class, itself an indicator of miserable integration.
And where are the Socialists in all this?
Posted by: Klaus at August 6, 2006 01:35 AM
I suppose the very existence of an 'Arab voter base' presumes an Arab class, itself an indicator of miserable integration.
Not necessarily, unless there's a confusion between integration and complete assimilation. People who abide by the law, have a job, speak the language, etc., are integrated by civilized standards (some of which continental Europe still has to catch up with). Their ethnic/religious affiliation and subsequent differences in say, foreign policy concerns for example, is their democratic right. It doesn't hurt their country's interests, and if it did, well, I trust continental European countries to take care of them as per their usual delicate handling of their minorities.
And where are the Socialists in all this?
About Lebanon? The official party line is that they hold Hezbollah responsible for the whole mess but that Israel's reaction is disproportionate. They're pretty irrelevant though. They're the opposition, they were never strong when it came to foreign politics, France was always even less significant with them than with the Gaullists on the international stage, and they're busy fighting about who's gonna be the next snotty chieftain at the 2007 elections.
I think that the more monolithic a minority votes and/or is perceived, the more separate it is from the rest of society. The black vote in USA is a good example. People occasionally talk about the gay vote, or the muslim. Never heard anyone talk about the Philippine or Thai vote.
re Socialists, I was thinking about getting the Arab vote. I assumed it was theirs to keep and hold.
Posted by: Klaus at August 6, 2006 02:11 PM
I think that the more monolithic a minority votes and/or is perceived, the more separate it is from the rest of society.
Maybe, I didn't give it a thought. It is a Bad Strategy though when some minority has a monolithic vote, and fortunately, French Arab vote is less monolithic than it was in the past. There are issues though on which you can definitely lose them. Immigration, perceived xenophobia, foreign policy on certain sensitive issues come to mind. On other issues, their vote tend to normalize with the mainstream, with children/grand-children of immigrants - and even immigrants themselves as the type of immigration is quite different today from what it was 25-50 years ago - voting through the whole spectrum (except the extreme-right of course).