Nicolas Sarkozy recently added to his infamous pile of gaffes when he declared at a live debate that France had too many foreigners. The last time he made such an inciting remark was when he and Barack Obama were caught off-guard at the G20 meeting talking about the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. On that famous open mic, Mr Sarkozy described Mr Netanyahu as a liar. This time around Mr Sarkozy probably figured if he was going to get back into contention in the upcoming national elections he had to take a very decisive stance – on immigration. While the effect on the polls is not immediately obvious his intention to get everyone’s attention has certainly paid off. The question is if he can really survive the opinionated judgement of the rest of the world when he, in effect, blatantly declares to them that they are not welcome in France. Since I started learning French last summer, I’ve always thought the word for welcome, ‘Bienvenue’, was a lot popular than the expression for good bye – or shall I say good riddance? – which the French president seems to be bidding us all.
Since Mr Sarkozy stepped up to the reins in French polity, first as Minister of Interior and then as Le President he has been notorious for his unkind attitude towards foreigners. It was a major talking point when he first ran for president and will again be a sore point even as opinion polls show him trailing behind his main rival, Francois Hollande, by some crucial points. Truth is the issue bothering me is bigger than Mr Sarkozy and the French elections. His views are personal and it would be unjust to draw a sweeping inference into how the general French public thinks of foreigners based on them. However, there is a tinge of reprisal being mete out to foreigners not just in France but the entirety of the Western bloc. Immigration is a big issue even as national governments try to tackle fundamental problems like rising unemployment, housing, and crime rate. In the USA, the talk is always centred on illegal immigrants and what government response should be. Just recently, a high school valedictorian who was smuggled into America from Colombia was on the brink of being chucked out of the States. While not every illegal immigrant becomes a school valedictorian, it would only be fair to give them a shot at a better life.
For Westerners, this ‘shot’ comes at their loss. In France and many other European countries facing the odds of an economic downturn the debate as to who gets to stay and who gets to be thrown out transcends the legal status of the foreigners. Typically, foreigners are largely unskilled workers from Africa and new members of the euro zone who take odd jobs that indigenous French workers are very obliged to ignore. Now, with a backlash of a flagging economy, many people are either losing their jobs or taking second jobs and as such resort to low-earning jobs which seems to have become the preserve of immigrants. Hence there is a clash of interest and an increasing animosity towards the immigrants. It is against this rift that Mr Sarkozy seeks to revitalize his re-election bid. He is robbing Peter to pay Paul – a saying which practically gets lost on my French audience.
To immigrants, it is not about clinging to power; and since most of them don’t get to vote they really have no time for politics. All they crave is a better life for themselves – whether they are from Bulgaria or Burkina Faso – and hordes of relatives back at home living on whatever they can remit. In Africa, this narrative is very common. Relatives contribute money for someone to travel abroad with the hope that when he or she gets established in the West their ‘investment’ would pay off. This is how many African families can afford the essentials of life like food, medicine and electricity. To take this away by limiting immigration would detract from the West’s stated mission to lift Africa out of poverty. With hand-outs and aids that never seem to trickle down to the masses, Africans are beginning to take the bull by the horn and if it means braving the isolation and language barrier of Europe then so be it. And who says, it is just a give-and-take situation? There are countless ways in which foreigners have helped the West reach where it is today. Barack Obama is a textbook case of how much an immigrant can bring into a developed nation; and historians still contend how different our world would be had Sir Albert Einstein not emigrated to the US. Still, Mr Sarkozy’s father so happens to have been a Hungarian immigrant! Sometimes it is not even a win-win situation for many countries which lose their skilled workers – doctors, nurses, pharmacists etc – to the West and the diametrically opposite impact of this brain drain on the West and the rest is one which Mr Sarkozy would gladly shelve when he blurts out another gaffe.
At some point, national interests should supersede international ones. Countries like France must first look out for her own citizenry before it does foreigners but by design no country can subsist in isolation. After Japan opened its borders to the world it benefitted from a wealth of technological know-how brought in by westerners. While that example is not remotely akin to the 21st century situation of Europe or America, it does illustrate a lesson which the likes of Mr Sarkozy should understand. For someone like me, labouring hard to learn French, it is not because I ultimately want to emigrate to France it is because I appreciate the richness of the French culture in a multi-national context and hope to build on the existing relationship between my country and Paris.