France’s Identity Politics

One big surprise of the current presidential campaign in France is how “national identity” has surged to the forefront of the political debate. During the 1995 presidential campaign, the main issues were unemployment and social divisions. In 2002, the priority was security. But the three main candidates this time around – Nicolas Sarkozy, Ségolène Royal, and François Bayrou – have given an entirely different shape to this campaign.

Sarkozy, for example, proposes to establish a ministry of immigration and national identity. Likewise, while Royal carefully maintains the distinction between nation and nationalism, she is drifting away from the Socialist Party’s old embrace of The Internationale , instead defending La Marseillaise and suggesting that all citizens should display a French flag on the National Day. Bayrou criticizes the “nationalist obsession” of his competitors, but he supports abrogating the jus soli (the right to obtain French nationality by birth) for people from the French island of Mayotte, owing to massive inflows of pregnant women to the island.

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For his part, the far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, says that he is very happy with this evolution. Indeed, the debate over national identity is nothing new. The problem is that French identity has always been made up of contradictory and sometimes adversarial elements, such as France’s Catholic and secular traditions, its revolutionary ideology and conservative inclinations, and the cultural outlooks of its rural and working-class citizens.

The historian Ernest Renan, who pondered about national identity after France’s 1871 defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, has defined the nation as a “soul” made up of two parts. One part, the “rich inheritance of memories,” is rooted in the past, while the other, related to the present and opening the way to the future, consists in the common will of citizens to build their public life together. Renan gave priority to this will for a common life over any ethnic definition and set the French idea of the nation in direct contrast to the almost racial notion of people (Volk) that dominates the German tradition.

In this view, national identity, is a “spiritual concept” based on a common history and set of values. Some of these values are rooted in a kind of secular Christianity, and others in the Enlightenment’s revolutionary beliefs about human rights, equality, the French language, secular schooling, and the idea that the state is responsible for the common interest and application of republican principles.

It is this view of national identity – one that transcends race, color, origin and religion – that is now disputed. The identity crisis now roiling France is fueled by the conjunction of many factors: globalization, which produces uncertainty, the European Union, which curtails the freedom of national leaders, American strategic dominance, which has reduced France’s position in the world, and the rising Asian powers.

This represents a serious challenge to thinkers who sometimes ridicule the idea of the nation itself, arguing that we now inhabit a “post-national” world. For them, national identity should be abandoned in favor of a European identity, even if the feeling of belonging to Europe is not deeply held among the peoples of the EU.

Instead, the link between identity and immigration, an old refrain of the far right, remains strong, and the issue has grown more heated because of France’s inability to develop an effective policy to integrate immigrants from Africa. Making matters worse, while religion and culture have traditionally been restricted to the personal sphere in France, some religious demands have intruded into public life, as demonstrated by the disputes over Muslim girls’ wearing of veils in schools.

The problem of the link between national identity and cultural pluralism is now surfacing in nearly the same way in the United Kingdom, Holland, and Denmark – countries that, contrary to France, long ago chose a policy of multiculturalism. In the United States, a country of huge immigration, communities can bring together a strong cultural identity and a deeply engrained patriotism. It has been the same in France, which has been built by successive waves of immigrants. But, contrary to the US, integration in France is not based on assimilation, but on a desire to promote homogeneity – the nation unified as “one and indivisible.”

Today, in a world changed by globalization, France must face the difficult challenge posed by its new immigrants: maintaining the principles at the core of French identity while meeting the desire of some of its new citizens to maintain their own identity, which may in fact oppose some of those principles. Today’s debate over national identity arises from this tension, so it’s not surprising that it has become a central issue of the presidential campaign. But what is at stake in that debate are values that not only built France, but that also have built and will continue to build Europe.