What does it mean to be French?
An overwhelming majority of the French believe their language is the greatest symbol of their nation. (in two different polls 80% here
). This is uniquely French and certainly a major difference with what the Americans (or the British) might answer. (after all, contrary to France, the US has no official national language
This has also interesting implications. It may for instance explain why the French are so reluctant to learn foreign languages (and particularly English of course).
The Republic came second with 92%. Public services came third with 91%. The Tricolor flag made (surprisingly) 88% and the Laicité (the French version of secularism) came next with 85 percent, followed for 77% by the Marseillaise national anthem.
Why these polls?
Because, in a very typical French fashion, the government has just decreed a debate on French identity
. It is supposed to take place in the prefectures and sub- prefectures with the participation of NGOs, teachers, trade unions, elected officials etc…. Just like anything else they have done, it has taken everyone by surprise.
But no one is fool enough to miss the political timing of this initiative
which is probably why it has sparked controversy. It is easy to see it as an attempt to divert attention from the recent polemics over Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand's past as a sex tourist in Asia, and over the president’s attempt of nepotism.
Sarkozy has also been accused of trying to woo the far right voters with the coming regional elections in mind, as the debate has come in the midst of the government’s talk to ban the full-body Islamic veil and implement a tougher approach to immigration.
Of course, in France, talks of national identity and national pride smacks Marshal Pétain's days and still is a sensitive issue. Recently, Sarkozy said that Frenchness had been forged by the "singular relationship of the French to the land", and that "All French families have grandparents who at one time or another worked the land.". This link to the land was also a common theme of Pétain
) but in today’s France, it is nothing more than a myth. Farmers represent only about 3% of the working population. Worse, this link to the land somewhat excludes all those French born in families of immigrants. (which is kind of ironic since the French president is himself the son of a Hungarian immigrant father with no farming grandparents and thus no connection to the French land or the “terroir”).
This soul-searching debate was initiated by the Minister of Immigration and National Identity Eric Besson. Yes, however strange this may sound, there is a ministry of ‘National Identity’
in France – a novelty even in this country. (Eric Besson
, interestingly, used to be a socialist and switched side during the presidential campaign, and helped Sarkozy prep for the presidential debate during the campaign, giving him insight about his opponent, Segolène Rorale and was so he rewarded with this new ministry in the government).
What I find particularly it disturbing is that a debate on French identity should be so intimately linked to the immigration question. Just as disturbing to the left is that it comes from Eric Besson whom they see (rightfully) as a traitor and an opportunist. Divide to conquer is certainly what Sarkozy must have in mind (but division on this question also appears in his own camp).
Besson said he wants every young French citizen to sing the Marseillaise once a year, following a course on the theme of the national hymn. (Personally, I think the lyrics - here
in French and here
in English - are horribly gory and violent. My suggestion would be to change them, or find another song altogether. Unfortunately, given the recent polls
, I’m afraid not many French people would agree with me.).
Forcing kids to sing the national anthem would be nothing more than a useless gimmick. Paradoxically, Besson seems to find the inspiration for this overt form of patriotism in… the American model
(including with regard to immigration
). He doesn't seem to see that what works in a country may not work in another! That is simply not the way the French do it.
What will come out of this 4 month debate? I think it is a lot of hot air. Inevitably, we’ll end up with reinforcing images d’Epinal
(French expression referring to an emphatically traditionalist and naïve depiction of something), and for that, why not simply read Asterix
, (who just celebrated his 50th birthday
). At least, he is funny, which is a lot more than anyone in this government can say :
"It is clear that Asterix was made with the image of the French," says Uderzo. "We took the tics and the manners of the French" – but that it relies so heavily on ingenious wordplay and puns for its humour.
Uderzo told French radio that Astérix was born when the owner of a French magazine called Pilote wanted a comic strip his kids could read that represented French culture. The creators settled on Gaulles as their characters, because he said, nothing is more French than the Gaulles. (VOA)