Having spent much of the past five years following the career of the newly-elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy, I understand full well how much he has relied on the stigmatization of the Arab community. It is his prejudiced and aggressive rhetoric, after all, that led to the 2005 riots in the banlieues — the predominantly lower-class suburbs. But even I was surprised by the extremism of Sarkozy’s most recent move against immigrants.
Earlier this fall, a member of the ruling party introduced an amendment to the government’s newest immigration bill: he proposed that immigrants already in France who want to reunify with family members use DNA testing to prove their blood tie. The government quickly embraced the amendment, while the left, immigrant-rights groups and many newspapers hastily organized to counter the proposal. A petition effort gathered nearly 300,000 signatures in a few weeks, and a rally was held at one of Paris’s biggest concert halls, attracting thousands of protestors.
The biggest surprise came from the number of right-wing politicians who expressed their unease with the DNA amendment. Even Dominique de Villepin, the Prime Minister from 2005 to 2007 and, as such, one of the leading figures of the right, signed the petition and publicly voiced his opposition to the proposal. Conservative resistance was so strong in the usually docile Senate that the government was forced to tone down the amendment. The bill ended up being adopted last week; in the final version, the tests are optional and subsidized by the state.
With this amendment, France is adopting a practice that has become common in America; the United States use DNA testing even more broadly to establish ties with family members left abroad — and you can be sure that the American government does not pay for them. But neither the small changes to which the French government agreed nor this illustrious American precedent resolve the major issues raised by DNA testing.
The most pressing problem is the dramatic extension of genetics beyond purely scientific use and law enforcement. The state’s control of DNA information could easily expand; what if it is next used to deny health care coverage? In an era of rapidly waning civil liberties, any decision based on someone’s genetic makeup is an unwelcome development — especially when it comes to immigration. Just when European law started moving away from regulating citizenship based on blood, France is setting itself back decades.
Familial ties are no longer a matter of genetics, and legal guardianship is not linked to biological parenthood. Whatever the scenario in which you are raising a child conceived by others, you are considered his or her legal parent if civil law recognizes you as such. But what can immigrants who have adopted a child do if the French state puts such a value on blood relations and DNA testing? What about all of those who have raised a child they have not biologically conceived?
Thankfully we have no problem recognizing these ties as parental relationships equally valuable as any others. This bill radically contradicts this view by proposing that a child is first and foremost genetic offspring — and that legal parenthood is simply not enough. Making the test optional does not mitigate the process. If immigrants refuse, will they not be more likely to see their demands rejected, especially if other petitioners agreed to testing? If not, what is the point of testing in the first place?
DNA requirements also betray a blatant mistrust of the developing world. Sarkozy might think that the non-Western world resembles a lawless jungle, but countries like Algeria and Senegal from which many emigrants move to France do have legal records of guardianship. Algerian law is perfectly capable of recognizing a man as the father of a child. So what does it mean for France to verify whether the two are linked by blood? Either that it suspects Algeria is essentially unbound by law or that Algeria is organizing a massive fraud to send off its children to adults that have nothing to do with them or that only biological parenthood can be recognized as family.
In a strongly worded editorial blasting Sarkozy last week, the New York Times worried about “pseudoscientific bigotry” and likened the bill to the dark days of the Vichy collaborationist government during the Nazi occupation. But this latest bill is hardly the only sign pointing to such a worrisome parallel. In fact, Sarkozy has been consistent in reducing most social phenomenon beyond immigration and family to genetic makeup. During the presidential campaign last spring, for example, he proclaimed that pedophiles were genetically determined. And many already accused Sarkozy of embracing shady terminology when he created a “Ministry of Immigration and National Identity” days after his inauguration.
With the immigration debate heating up in the United States, American politicians should be careful to not embark on a similar slippery slope. Unfortunately, we are becoming so accustomed to civil rights offenses in this country that policies such as DNA testing are proceeding unnoticed.
Daniel Nichanian is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.