Can you Tolerate the Intolerable?

Tolerance is key part of liberal ideology. As a political doctrine, liberalism stands for equal rights to all and individual liberty. This implies that anyone born in a liberal state has the same set of rights, obligations and opportunities as anyone else. The problem with this doctrine stems from the fact that different people utilize this set in various ways, therefore creating a rift between individuals. This is at the center of the contemporary debate surrounding the French expulsion of the Roma immigrants.

On Sept. 16th 2010, at the meeting of the European Council, certain reports were issued about a verbal confrontation between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso over the expulsion of the Roma. The EUObserver reports that Mr. Sarkozy’s shouting “reportedly heard at the other end of the corridor”. This came as no surprise, since through its actions, the French Government has evidently breached one of the key principles of the European Union: the free movement of people.

Mr. Sarkozy, being the leader of the French conservative UMP party, has of course been the center of attention because of the move to send the Roma in his country back to Romania and Bulgaria, their country of origin and also members of the EU. Yet, there are three key ideas to consider when examining the French President’s actions.

First, the move to expel the Roma can be seen as a political power-play. At the same time as the initiation of this (popular) policy, Mr. Sarkozy’s government is also trying to push through a serious (unpopular) reform of the pension system. This would see the retirement age in the country being raised from 60 to 62 years, and has caused a wave of strikes in all sectors of the economy. The political strategy in this context is one that can easily be described in terms of game theory: lose some, gain some. Basically, it is easy for any government to push through any unpopular reform while exercising its power in another sector in a popular way.

Second, the conservative French government has been exercising selective liberalism for a few decades now. Immigrants from the old French colonies have been allowed to gain citizenship, live and work in the EU member state without much hassle (Other ex-colonial powers tend to show favoritism as well; e.g. the UK to the Commonwealth, Italy to North Africa, and Belgium to Congo). A testimony to this is the large immigrant population in the south of the country. Yet, a European political minority is now being expelled for reasons logical only in the mind of the post-colonial French politicians. A wave of authoritarianism is seemingly setting in, since the government has now become the decision-maker on who stays and who goes, with vague criteria. Conservatism has beaten liberalism on this account.

Third, the question of tolerance has shown that immigrants in any country are hard to assimilate. Europe boasts itself as a society of tolerance, and yet selectively discriminates political minorities, exploits social status, and favors specific groups. An example of this can be found in higher education: nearly all universities in Europe have tolerable tuition fees for students coming from within the EEA, while administering a policy of higher tuition fees for students from outside the bloc. If these institutions can discriminate through financial mechanisms, why should the state not have a set of mechanisms for intolerance? This is seemingly the case with the French expulsion of the Roma.

One effect that we fear will result from this policy is that of the ripple. The question is where does this end? If the French Republic expels citizens of the EU to a fellow member state, then what is to keep them from taking it one step further and banning nationals of certain states from residing in the country? Such socially sensitive political questions reside in the back of the mind of every citizen living outside their home country. If history has taught us something it is to beware the rise of authoritarianism and nationalism.

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