France’s Identity Politics

One of the biggest surprises of the current presidential campaign is how “national identity” has surged to the forefront of the political debate. Moreover, the debate represents a serious challenge to thinkers who sometimes ridicule the idea of the nation itself, arguing that we now inhabit a “post-national” world.

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.

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.

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