A hostile country wanting to attack France needs only to choose the month of August.
It may not have been the case during the life and times of Asterix, but since World War II, every office in France is on vacation at this time. Most of the descendants of the Gauls are on the beaches of the Riviera or Brittany, while the fittest are in the mountains, and the most daring, abroad.
Come September, there is ‘la rentree’, literally ‘the return’, when the country returns to the issues it had blissfully forgotten while tanning.
This time round, as the trade unions have announced, ‘la rentree sera chaude’ (the return will be hot). Courtesy President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Before leaving for a holiday at one of his wife’s properties on the Cote d’Azur, the President triggered a debate that cost the poor journalists their vacation, and kept the public reading the papers for once.
The hot subject of this summer was: should France tighten its ‘security’, and if so, who should be made the scapegoats?
Making a speech in Grenoble towards the end of July, the President offered up an idea to the media, to tackle the deteriorating situation in the suburbs of the big cities.
He proposed that anti-social elements who had recently acquired French nationality be stripped of their citizenship if they committed crimes against police personnel.
Though government offices were empty, all ‘senior’ politicians issued a communique to clarify their stand on the issue, from the sites of their respective vacations.
How can a nation that invented the mantra of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” speak of a double-tier law, one for the ‘true’ French and one for the new ones?
France was the first nation to speak of the equality of all citizens in front of the law. During the French Revolution, a first Constitution was passed by the Constituent Assembly; it guaranteed natural and civil rights for all citizens, stating: “All similar offences shall be punished with similar penalties, without any distinction of persons.”
The legal question is: can someone who has acquired French citizenship be treated differently from a person who is French by birth? Having realized its blunder, the Sarkozy government is now backtracking a bit.
They say it should be applicable only in two exceptional situations: (a) bigamy (b) attack on police personnel.
But the fact is, such a law existed before 1998, but it was to be implemented only in extremely rare cases - a person who had acquired French nationality less than 10 years earlier, could lose citizenship for committing a ‘grave crime’. This could be terrorism, sedition, spying for a foreign power or high military treason. It has never been put to use.
One of the reasons is that France is a signatory of an international convention which forbids the creation of stateless persons. This means a citizen can lose his or her nationality only if he holds another, which is often not the case.
So one could ask: why all this noise?
Like any democracy, France has vote banks. Sarkozy is not doing well in the surveys, with more than 65% of the French unhappy with his policies. His communications advisors seem to have calculated that his best bet, in order to rise in his voters’ esteem, is to look tough and bang on the table.
To grasp the story of the summer, one has to understand the concept of ‘effet d’annonce’ (“announcement effect”), devised by the communication gurus of the President.
The principle is simple - you make a big ‘announcement’, which is splashed out by the media, and then, you wait.
It is not unknown in India; many politicians know the trick without having attended IIM or Harvard. They promise free TVs sets (or anything similar) to an entire section of the population (read voters), and for a few months, they can reap the effect of the announcement without doing anything.
If their survey barometer improves, it is good; if not, they can always blame it on the opposition or the ‘political atmosphere’ which stopped them from implementing their vision.
Nicolas Sarkozy made another announcement which created a bigger flutter than the threat of stripping people of nationality. He said all the Romas living illegally on French territory would be rounded up and sent back to their country of origin, Romania. Since the decision was made public, several hundred Romas have already journeyed back to Romania in chartered transport funded by Paris.
But here’s why this is controversial. Since the integration of Romania in the European Union (EU) in 2007, citizens of this country can freely circulate within the EU.
It is estimated that there are 15,000 Romas living today in France; in most cases they live in slums. According to Brice Hortefeux, the French Home Minister, the percentage of crime in the Roma community increased by 138% in one year.
French law states that any citizen of another European country, who has no revenue and no fixed residence after three months’ stay, is subject to deportation.
However, opponents of the ‘securitarian’ lobby in the government, say it is a violation of human rights, as citizens of the EU are being deprived of their right to circulate freely.
It appears that the French government was not prepared for the onslaught of protest, not only from the socialist opposition, but also from the international media, who almost unanimously condemned the French move.
But things got worse when the Pope joined the bandwagon. From his vacation palace in Castel Gandolfo, the Pontiff gave a speech in French about European citizens not being able to move wherever they wanted.
Even as France continued with the expulsions, the Archbishop of Paris decided to enter the fray and defend his boss.
Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, who is also the President of the Conference of Bishops of France, regretted the ‘unhealthy climate’ created by the decision. Though he clarified that he did not object to the law per se, he pointed out that the implementation of the law was not always ‘moral’, adding that ‘legality should be accompanied by a deep thinking on the sense of humanity’.
Survey companies got lucrative commissions for the holidays. According to one investigation conducted by the usually reliable firm CSA, for the daily Le Parisien, 48% of the French are in favour of the expulsions while 42% are opposed. 10% refused to answer. Le Figaro conducted another survey to find that 65% were in favour of the eviction of Romas, if their papers were not in order.
As September arrives, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon (who is far more popular than the President) announced his decision to Europeanise the issue - probably fearing that persisting criticism would lead to negative political collaterals.
Fillon told the Annual Conference of French Ambassadors that he had spoken with the European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and that he planned to hold a ‘working meeting’ between some of his ministers and the concerned European commissioners.
As voices in Sarkozy’s camp began to be heard against the drastic measures (not so drastic in fact, because most evacuees will return to France after a short time), Fillon affirmed that the French policy did not breach any EU directives from Brussels: “The deportations of Roma to their countries of origin made by our country have been made in full compliance with European law.”
He added: “France considers that the only long term solution for these fully-fledged European citizens is better economic and social integration, first of all in their country of origin."
Fillon explained further: “Our priority is also with the plight of the Roma children. Many of them are exploited by criminal networks. This is a situation that is unacceptable in the EU."
In the meanwhile, the French government received Valentin Mocanu, the Romanian Minister of State, responsible for the Romas, and his colleague in charge of public security, Dan Valentin Fatuloiu.
The discussion was friendly, according to Eric Besson, the French Minister for integration. “We will collaborate better on the question of reintegration,” he declared after the meeting.
Mr. Fatuloiu spoke of “the will of both governments to better manage bilateral migratory flux”. Nice terminology for a thorny issue.
According to the website Europolitics: “The EU executive is struggling to shed light on the Romas' right to free movement and the prohibition of the discrimination of which they are victims across Europe. The 10 to 12 million Roma make up Europe's largest minority.”
The European Commission believes they have "the same rights under European law as other Europeans." But what happens when their lifestyle requires a different framework of laws?
One must realise that the construction of Europe is not an easy task, and it will be a few decades before we can see true integration.
But the situation is certainly far better than in the subcontinent - where Indians are not even allowed to go to a flooded Pakistan to help their South Asian brethren (please note that the Chinese are welcome: 11,000 PLA soldiers are said to have reached occupied Gilgit-Baltistan).
We are living in a complicated world, where political agenda takes precedence over human empathy.
Also read: What ails US intelligence? | Will the US lead once more? | Cyberwar and the ‘destruction of rules’ | More columns by Claude Arpi
Born in France, Claude Arpi's quest began 36 years ago with a journey to the Himalayas. Since then he has been a student of the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent. He is the author of numerous English and French books. His book, Tibet: the Lost Frontier (Lancers Publishers) was released recently.