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French immigration ministry draws fire

Ramesh Sinthurajah, left, from Sri Lanka, with his daughter Tiana, 5, receives his certificate of French citizenship from the hands of Immigration Minister Brice Hortefeux, during a ceremony at the Bobigny Prefecture, East of Paris, in this May 31, 2007 file photo. Nearly 200 professors, artists and others, some at universities in the United States, Britain or Japan, have signed a petition published Friday, June 22, 2007 protesting France's new Ministry of Immigration and National Identity and asking that its name be changed and extensive powers cut back. Ramesh Sinthurajah, left, from Sri Lanka, with his daughter Tiana, 5, receives his certificate of French citizenship from the hands of Immigration Minister Brice Hortefeux, during a ceremony at the Bobigny Prefecture, East of Paris, in this May 31, 2007 file photo. Nearly 200 professors, artists and others, some at universities in the United States, Britain or Japan, have signed a petition published Friday, June 22, 2007 protesting France's new Ministry of Immigration and National Identity and asking that its name be changed and extensive powers cut back. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

PARIS --France's new and powerful Ministry of Immigration and National Identity is a danger to democracy and its powers should be curtailed, said a petition published Friday by 188 historians, artists and academics.

To link immigration and the concept of national identity "is to inscribe immigration as a problem for France and the French in their very being," said the petition, published in the leftist daily Liberation.

It was signed by some of France's most illustrious thinkers, as well as professors from Princeton University, Cambridge, Sydney, Tokyo and elsewhere.

Many contend the new institution -- tasked with tackling illegal immigration, better integrating newcomers and protecting French identity -- embodies the themes of far-right voters who helped conservative Nicolas Sarkozy become president.

"This confusion of roles and functions is inadmissible and worrisome," the petition said. "We energetically protest the name and powers conferred on this ministry."

The petition "solemnly asks the president of the Republic to make choices more in conformity with the democratic traditions" of France.

Sarkozy created the Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Co-development -- its full name -- last month.

It is headed by Brice Hortefeux, a Sarkozy ally of some three decades who, unlike other ministers, has kept a low profile since taking up his post. Hortefeux was on a trip to the African country of Benin on Friday.

Gerard Noiriel, a noted historian, said the government had no business trying to impose national identity.

"There is no official definition of national identity," he said in a telephone interview. "Identity is built in daily life by the people themselves. It is above all not for the state to say what national identity should be."

Sarkozy announced during his campaign for the presidency that, if elected, he would create a ministry to oversee both immigration and national identity, drawing a storm of criticism. National identity became a theme of the campaign as Sarkozy sought -- successfully -- to woo far-right voters who handed anti-immigration champion Jean-Marie Le Pen second place in 2002 presidential elections.

"This was a machine put in place to get the votes of Jean-Marie Le Pen," said Jean-Philippe Genet, a history professor at the Sorbonne University, echoing Noiriel and others. Le Pen came in a poor fourth in this year's election.

The ministry addresses issues that long have been a concern to the far right, such as fear that immigrants will steal jobs, create social tensions and smother the notion of French identity. Muslims, in particular, are seen as a threat by far-rightists. France has an estimated 5 million Muslims -- the largest such population in Western Europe.

Sarkozy, himself the son of a Hungarian immigrant, has brought a broad spectrum into his government to balance concerns that he is cowing to the far right. The government includes Socialists as well as ministers from France's Arab and African minorities.

The purview of the ministry overlaps with the ministries of the interior, defense, foreign affairs and labor.

"We are not politicians .... But we consider it our responsibility to sound the alarm," said Noiriel.

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