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Foreign flags at La Bastille. By Philippe Labrecque

by on May 14, 2012

The results came down officially at 8pm on May 6th, confirming what most predicted. Incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy was defeated by the Socialist candidate, François Hollande.

The defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy and it’s center-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), meant that the victorious celebrations by newly elected François Hollande and the left wing Socialist Party would be held at Place de la Bastille, emblem of the French Revolution and a memorial of the taking of the fortress that many consider the symbol of the end of the French Monarchy and the Old Regime.

I was present at La Bastille on May 6th and anyone else there for the celebrations could not help but notice that France’s flag, the Tricolore, was scarcely seen, while flags from multiple countries and every political party from the left were numerous and flying high. The next morning, Nadine Morano, Minister of Learning and Vocational training and member of the defeated Sarkozy administration, as well as Louis Aliot, Vice president of the far-right National Front, criticized the number of “red flags and foreign flags” and the absence of the Tricolore at La Bastille.

It didn’t take much to ignite the debate and, sadly, the French media reverted quickly to its left and right wing biases as the left attacked the right with poorly veiled insults of xenophobia while the right denounced the clannishness of French society and politics. Although one could explain the revolutionary red flags’ presence due to the victory of the Socialist party, the presence of foreign flags made many feel uncomfortable.

It is fair to say that it was not the Greek, Spanish or even the Québec flags that made some feel uncomfortable but the Algerian, Tunisian, Moroccan, Turkish, Palestinian and even the Syrian and Iraqi flags that created the polemic. Some saw this display of internationalism as positive and a success of the left’s ability to unite people of many origins as oppose to the divisive strategy of the right based on patriotism and a mild form of nationalism during those presidential elections. There is, however, a more profound issue beyond the mere display of foreign flags than what the mainstream left and right care to argue beyond their typical, mutual insults.

Indeed, it was no coincidence that they were no Israeli flag flown over La Bastille while many flags from predominantly Muslim countries could be seen. Pierre Bréchon, professor at Sciences Po Grenoble argues in the national newspapers Le Figaro, that religion is, by far, the most important factor in explaining the results of the elections. The Figaro reported the day after Hollande’s victory that 92% of eligible voters in Israel voted for Nicolas Sarkozy, while in Ramallah, in the Palestinian territories, Hollande received the support of 83% of eligible voters. In France, polls show that nearly 80% of practicing Catholics voted Sarkozy while 93% of practicing Muslims gave their support to Hollande.

Such numbers are not entirely surprising. Sarkozy led campaigns in 2007 and 2012 that many judged hostile to immigration in general but especially to people of Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan origins. What’s interesting, is that those same polls demonstrate that voters that identified as practicing Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews, share similar conservative values in line with the right’s values when it comes to sensitive issues such as gay marriage, abortion and strong family values to name only a few. However, numbers show that of those four religious groups, only Muslims vote massively to the left, most likely due to the latter more positive and less confrontational attitude towards immigration from the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa especially.

As Pierre Bréchon mentions, if anything can be taken from the Muslim vote in France, it’s its rate of abstention that is much higher than average. Perhaps, the right and the left are mutually responsible for that high abstention rate amongst Muslims. One could argue that the left’s ideological barriers prevents it from matching the conservative views of practicing Muslims. The right’s return to its traditional role of defender of the French identity that often includes its Christian roots combined with its increasingly anti-immigration stance at least since Nicolas Sarkozy became Minister of the Interior in 2005, leaves immigrants from the last 30 or 40 years and practicing Muslims with very few options when it comes to voting.

Even non-religious voters waved their flags frantically during the night of May 6th, but their flags were those of the different parties of the left as Pierre Bréchon reports that 70% of self-identified non-religious voters supported Hollande. If many here in France argued that Hollande was elected to fight unemployment, then the religious influences would most likely be less important as economics cuts across all classes and religious groups. Perhaps, non-religious voters were the most influenced by economic issues and judged Sarkozy’s tenure as President as a failure while Hollande could take on the economic crisis more efficiently and re-start the French economy.

The foreign flag controversy, therefore, was not merely an innocent occurrence but highlighted the religious fault lines that cut across French society. If France is to tackle its issues with identity, its colonial heritage and its large Muslim population, then maybe it is time to acknowledge that neither the right nor the left nor the media, has done anything in the last few years to truly help break sectarian divisions amongst the French.

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From → Foreign Affairs

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