Monday, November 2, 2009

The French Identity Debate

Today begins the great national debate on French identity. I am reminded of the World War II film in which an American sentry is confronted with the task of distinguishing between GIs and English-speaking Japanese soldiers who are attempting to infiltrate the American position. How can one identify a true American when language fails? Why, a question about baseball, of course! So the challenge is, "What team did Lou Gehrig play for?" Or, "How many home runs did Babe Ruth hit?"

Of course Lou Gehrig was issu de l'immigration (father Heinrich Gehrig), and Babe Ruth's father signed him over to a Catholic orphanage and reform school when he was 7, not exactly your standard picture of a happy American family.

The problem with the whole concept of national identity is that it is oxymoronic. A nation is by definition a whole that subsumes countless differences under a single name, usually on the basis of a contingent quality, birth (natio), from which no essential identity can be deduced. Nationals may share a history, but what history they share is dependent on the highly contingent and constructed category of memory, as Pierre Nora and his collaborators demonstrated in Les lieux de mémoire.

The coming months of "debate" of French identity are likely to produce answers as intellectually absurd as the American sentry's challenge, but perhaps resulting in a similar rough-and-ready pragmatic rule of thumb.

To be French, then, will be found to mean that one is:

1. Francophone (though not necessarily able to distinguish properly between manger, mangé, mangez, and mangeait when writing)
2. If female, unveiled
3. If male, able to identify Zinédine Zidane and Benjamin Biolay Brigitte Bardot (but not, say, Jean Schlumberger or Hector Berlioz)
4. If a child, familiar with the last words of Guy Môquet (but probably unaware of the existence of Henri Giraud)

Vive la France, vive la République!


Unknown said...

I thought I'd been French for the past 50 years or so. Now I'm not so sure. Who is Benjamin Biolay?

Unknown said...

kirkmc said...

I never heard of Biolay either, so I guess I can't apply?

Personally, I don't find the American "test" to be that ridiculous; it does show that one has "fit in" with the culture. Even if you weren't a baseball fan, you would know who those people are. I hate football (soccer) but I'm familiar with the names of many of the French players, just because I hear them on the news from time to time.

But I, too, find this "debate" to be a bit ludicrous. Frankly, I'm more used to Americans being "proud" and all that, and am surprised that the French need to quantify their who-they-are in this manner.

I'll be curious to see the results; to see if I fit in. I've been living here for more than 25 years now, and, in spite of the fact that many French people are friendly, still feel that I'd never be accepted as one of them. (Even though I could certainly get French nationality if I wanted.) Being different in France is very difficult, and if anything, this debate is going to further differentiate those of us who are different.

MYOS said...

I'd make small changes to your French citizenship test:
-replace "Biolay" and use Johnny Halliday instead.
Michel Drucker and Tintin are also good test subjects.
For children: use Qui est Titeuf? with an alternate (as kids should be allowed one mistake) Qui est le père Noël?
- Despite being a good choice in terms of official literature, Guy Moquet's last words aren't recited anymore (it looks like the practice only took place one year). Not sure what it should be replaced with.

Unknown said...

Je suis comme Bernard, je crois n'avoir jamais entendu parler de Benjamin Biolay. Quant à Henri Giraud, je ne suis pas bien sûr. Un conteur? Par contre Jean Schlumberger, je sais, et Berlioz aussi… Je ne suis don pas si nul.
Pour ce qui est des voiles et des burquas! que faire d'une française de souche qui choisit de porter l'une ou l'autre? Lui retirer sa nationalité? Tout cela est absurde et un peu dérisoire.

MYOS said...

BTW, my friends currently living in the "banlieues" say this debate is taken very seriously by people who feel it is their chance to show how French they are and who hope the debate will "legitimize" them. There's a raw need to define "French" AGAINST nationalistic views, to prove one can be pro-Marseillaise and pro-other-antemns, for example.

An idea: let us give the "entrance test" currently used for/against visa applicants to ALL French people. I think the results would be interesting.

Unknown said...

Voilà, si on peut devenir plus Catholique que le Pape, je serais peut-être devenu plus français que les Hexagonaux. On ne connaît pas Biolay? Chanteur archi-connu et ex-mari de Chiara Mastroianni, elle-même la fille de Catherine Deneuve--une femme si française qu'elle a pu prendre la place de Marianne--et de Marcello Mastroianni, avec Alain Delon le beau idéal du masculin français, même s'il est par une caprice de la nature Italien par son état civil, tout comme la Première Dame. C'est pour cette raison que j'ai choisi Biolay (et par hasard je l'ai croisé une fois dans le bar de l'hôtel Lutétia, cette grande palace parisienne qui aura servi de QG du Reichssicherheitsdienst ou quelque chose comme ça). Quant à Giraud, on a un peu vite oublié le grand rival de De Gaulle, le préféré de Roosevelt pour diriger les Français Libres et pour être porté à la tête de la nation après la guerre:

On le voit bien: une nation, c'est une chose complexe.

meshplate said...

Phew! I thought I might be a pluc for not knowing who Benjamin Biolay is. Now that I know, it's clear it's not too important...

meshplate said...

Une nation: est-elle véritablement une "chose" ? N'est-elle pas plutôt un idéal, c'est-à-dire une aspiration métaphysique ?

Unknown said...

Ah, meshplate, ce serait un débat un peu trop long et, pour un blog, beaucoup trop ... métaphysique.

kirkmc said...

I don't think a nation is anything metaphysical at all. It is the result of historical circumstances - language, geography and events - rather than a realization of an ideal. While ideals govern the events part, it seems that a nation is just what happens when a whole lot of people get together. You can't change it any more than you can stop a tractor trailor on a dime. Debates may help nudge the ideals of a nation in certain directions, but they can't do much more than that.

What's interesting is that the French seem to need to justify their Frenchness, when there's no valid way to do so. It all strikes me as very odd...

MYOS said...

Traditionally, in France, for the right the nation equals history + la terre, whereas for the left the nation equals values from the revolution + a common future.

We'll see how that shapes up. It can be an opportunity or a trap; unfortunately, it is impossible to trust Eric Besson.

I love how in Art's test females wouldn't be required to know some stuff.

meshplate said...

Whenever the definition of the nation is raised -- the state of abstract rights -- one is inevitably lead in the opposite direction to the idea of the cultural, embodied traditions of la patrie. In France, these two concepts have roughly dived left/right debates since the Revolution, and still tend to lead inevitably into troubled waters...

Unknown said...

Requiring females "to know some stuff" would be un-French :) That's an emoticon indicating a smile, by the way, in case anyone is tempted to take me seriously. Please, I'm innocent, even if MCG did accuse me yesterday of making a sexist remark when I suggested that women "senior" to Rama Yade might "envy" her popularity. Was I not suggesting that Rama Yade was young and beautiful and that her "seniors" were "old" and "jealous" of her physical charms? This, according to MCG, was a remark even less sensitive than the one that lost Larry Summers his job at Harvard. Well, as it happens, I was referring to Yade's political popularity and to her position as a junior minister, but I don't see any point in denying that she is also a beautiful woman and that physical qualities can have a bearing on political success.

Tom Holzman said...

One of the better reverse tests of being American happened to a friend of my family's during World War II when he was in the OSS in Burma working behind the lines. An American plane had been shot down by the Japanese and had crash landed near where he was stationed. The Kachin tribesmen he was leading told him the crew had survived. So, he and the tribesmen approached stealthily in tall grass toward the crash site and soon saw the fliers sitting near the wreckage looking very on edge. Our friend knew he would have to get up from the grass and say something, and wanted to come up with something that would cause the fliers to recognize immeidately that he was American so they would not shoot him thinking he was a Japanese who spoke English. So he came up with the perfect phrase which he said as he got up: "All right men, I need a volunteer." It worked. The fliers froze and did not shoot.

Unknown said...

Tom, Good story. From my own Army experience I would suggest several other phrases that might have worked equally well: "All right, men, I expect to see nothing but asses and elbows." "All right, men, if you're not off your butts in two seconds, I'll be kicking ass and taking names." But perhaps most efficiently: "All right, men, listen up!" Nobody but an authentic veteran uses the phrase "Listen up!"

meshplate said...

It's interesting how both Yade and Dati have fallen out of favor with Sarko, of course for very different reasons -- surely here is the stone under which we might want to look under for signs of sexism? Sarko doesn't seem to like women who are too uppity, or at least only up to a point.....

Cincinna said...

The question of American identity that Art highlights was based on the need to distinguish American citizens from German spies trained to speak perfect English.

The actual question was "Who won the World Series"?

Americans still have a shared culture. That is why there is no debate on such a subject here People come here to be Americans, and share in our culture and way of life

No matter where they come from, for the most part, they adopt American customs and traditions, like Thansgiving.

Here in NY where there are first and 2nd generation immigrants from every corner of the world, everyone knows who is winning the World Series,and is most likely following the game on radio or TV, and knows all about Mayor Bloomberg Everyone has an opinion. And everyone who has become a citizen will vote tomorrow.

In my unscientific poll of NYC cab drivers, Bloomberg will have a big win .

Are the French interested in Tuesday's elections at all?

Cincinna said...

Meshplate is on to something. Certainly where the US is concerned.

kirkmc is wrong. America is so much more than that.

America is an idea. So much more that just the tings he mentioned.

The fact that Sarko himself, the son and grandson of immigrants,is OPresident bears witness to the fact that the concept of French identity has changed. With the 2nd generation, i.e. Jean Sarkozy, who is totally French in manner, demeanor, and persona, France is becoming more like the US.

France under Sarko has shown a willingness to accept and integrate people from other places. The question remains, do these people want to become French, the way immigrants to the US want to become American?

Passerby said...

The problem of making comment #20, is that it's difficult to choose which previous statement to react to...

1. Art;
Let's face it, Benjamin Biolay is unknown to general public. For a sec I tought my passeport would be confiscated.

2. Kirkmc (comment#3);
I think that being different is difficult anywhere. Not that I'm trying to find excuses to my own country.
I got to live in few countries, it was always a great experience. I'm adaptable, but as an outsider you never fully belong (changing regions can be enough; no need to cross borders). Not that people mean to exclude.
It's difficult to show-up in a place where people already have their habits, their circles. Nobody waited for an outsider to built all that.
With a bit of luck and efforts you can enter some local network(s). But you don't have the same "vécu"; didn't go to the same schools or saw the same cartoons as a child. You'll always miss some cultural pieces of that local puzzle.
If I may use an analogy: 'm fluent in English, however I will never consider myself bilingual. It doesn't matter how many books I read, how many idiomatic expressions I learn. I might undertand some cultural expressions like "duck and cover" or an "ave maria" in football. I will never be able to replace the missing years not living in the country.

Based on my views exposed above, I think that to be truly French you need to grow-up in France. I'm talking identity here, not passeport.

Language & the origin of the parents can influence identiy, but they are not the main factors.
I know some people, born from French parents, who grew-up in the French speaking part of Switzerland. They have the language, the "blood", the passeport. Yet, they just do not feel French.

Cincinna said...

I don't think it is about understanding idioms. It isn't an Ave Maria in football, but a "Hail Mary Pass". It is last minute move that needs a prayer for it to have a chance. It is used in politics as well as football.

I think your observations are somewhat correct about France, because up until recently, France has been so intolerant of cultural differences.Hopefully that has changed.

As a nation of immigrants America is quite different. Every group that comes here retains some of their own culture, but becomes part of the larger whole of the Nation. People from different countries often live in their own neighborhoods, with their own language, food, stores, lawyers and doctors. Very strong communities. The difference is they fly the American Flag, and celebrate American holidays. After one or two generations, they move up and out.

Last week we went to a terrific Turkish restaurant in a neighborgood that has a large Turkish community. A few if the women wore a headscarf. So what? We went to a friend's baby's baptism in an all Polish neighborhood, in a Polish Church with a Polish priest. All the children are bilingual.

The Dean of Columbia Law School is an Orthodox Jew who wears a yarmulka. So does my Grandmother's doctor, one lf the top Kidney specialists in NY who heads a department at a major hospital. No one cares, no one even notices. His patients and co workers care that is a wonderful man,a decent and honest person, an excellent physician.

Maybe the reason we don't care about these things like crosses, veils, yarmulkas, is because we have such a strong national identity. We are not threatened by others who are different. We are all Americans.

BTW, I speak fluent French, I am unveiled, can ID Zidane, Schlumberger, ans Berlioz,have an extensive knowledge of French history and culture, have French ancestral roots Never heard of the Benjamin Biolay guy either. I drink French wine, cook mostly French, wear mostly French clothes, BUT, I am not I am not in any way French. In spirit and essence,thought and belief system, I am an American. I am, however a Franco-phile.

Passerby said...

Actually my observations were not specifically about France. These are some of the things that make you stand out from locals. Being French, I noticed these living abroad; including the US (being an agnostic doesn't always help to integrate).

But I do feel they would apply to France, for someone coming from outside.

Unknown said...

You've heard of Lou Dobbs, perhaps? Of the Minute Men? This "nation of immigrants" has not always been particularly welcoming (remember the Know-Nothings?), and its requirements for assimilation, though different from the French, are in their own way problematic. Return rates in certain immigrant groups have been quite high, as many immigrants did not find in America the Promised Land or streets paved with gold. France, too, is a nation of immigrants: the judge who has sent Chirac to trial is named Siméoni. There are many other problems with your invidious comparison, but no doubt you were throwing a Hail Mary pass in the Patriot Bowl, hoping that no one would bother to knock it down. Comparative history needs to be written with a fine-tipped pen, not a shotgun.

Unknown said...


Not that I am 100% definite, but Simeoni would be Corsican. You could be anticipating a little bit, though I'd love for that lot to be independant. Good riddance. And great savings for the nation's budget.

Unknown said...

Like Buonaparte, another trouble-making immigrant?

Cincinna said...

Art, most of the anti-immigration voices in the US, like Lou Dobbs, are anti-ILLEGAL immigration. Illegal immigration poses a problem because, among other problems, it disrespects the people who go about coming to the US in the proper, legal, manner, and wait their turn. It also places a tremendous burden on local services, like hospitals, schools, etc.

The Minute men are extremely marginal and very regional.Most Americans have never even heard of them

Here in NY we don't have an immigrant problem. Thereis, and always has been, incredible opportunities for immigrants and their children in the US.

Vis a vis Hispanics, compare the integration of immigrants into the culture in Texas and California. Policies and attitudes in Texas have made Texas a place where many Mexicans, who have their own Tehano culture, have become part of the fabric of Texas culture.The 2nd and 3rd generations hold elected office, are lawyers, doctors,small business owners.

FWIW, if people come here looking for the promised land, where streets are paved with gold, they are terrible naive and misled. This is Earth, not Heaven. Most immigrant groups, the Irish, Italians, Jews, faced discrimination employment problems in their day. They stayed and overcame it and became part of the mosaic.

It is also very regional. NYC has people from everywhere, and we deal with them every day. Montana, Vermont, Maine,and many other states, not so much.

MYOS said...

France is as much a nation of immigrants as the US. The difference is that France decided not to construct itself as such, because when it decided to "be born", ie 1789, its goal was to think in universals against the separate spheres that ruled life in the Old Regime; it wanted to erase all individual differences to erase prejudice and intolerance, thus the focus on the citizen (which, then, had a very broad acceptation. I read somewhere: "anyone who speaks French, worked in France, raised a child or helped an old person in France, is French.")
Case in point: the proclamation that led to the yiddish saying "Happy as God in France" came after a sentence to this effect 'Jews are owed nothing because they're Jews but they're owed everything because they're humans and citizens".
It was a noble project but its drawbacks are now evident: France shares a lot of values, it just doesn't know which ones.
I was struck, back in 2005, how utterly French the protesters were: they didn't use gun violence, they aimed at public properties (not, like in American riots, shops), and asked for more State intervention in public services as a sign they were recognized as fully French. They even asked for a better police force. Someone needs to say that "la France métissée" exists and has existed for years and even centuries.
There's a lot of pretending, especially in history textbooks. Books like Paris Noir, Paris Arabe, are wonderful, but aren't prevalent in schools. Reading an 8th grade French text, seriously, is reminiscent of our textbooks back in the 80s.

(Another issue: European geography and history are pretty well taught, but world history is skewed; only THIS YEAR did MS French history textbooks teach that Africa's history had started before Europeans came to "civilize" the continent. Up until then, kids were to presume that Africa was only wild and empty with no civilizations or history, just savages in huts waiting for roads and hospitals to be built for them. If you think I exagerate, pick up a middle school text from 1999 or 2005.)

And, sorry Cincinna, but coming from an aristocratic family to a mansion in a posh suburb isn't quite the same as being an immigrant in the traditional sense. One's original background and social standing, mother tongue literacy, cultural capital all play a big part. Going to a private, expensive Catholic school isn't the same as being educated in a crumbling banlieue school. Being taunted for lack of oncall servants isn't the same as being beaten up by thugs whom you caught urinating by your doorstep.
Sarkozy isn't so much an immigrant as a member of the displaced elites.
(it doesn't make the displacement less painful but the problems encountered are less severe.)

Todd pointed out that the percentage of foreign immigrants in France and in the US was roughly the same throughout the 20th century. It only changed in the early 80s. Now, pro capita, it is one fourth that of Canada.
France heralded itself as "nation des droits de l'homme". (each time I hear the phrase though, I hear Damien Saez's song from 2002). Droits de l'Homme included immigration but well-hidden.

Racism can be pretty raw in CA, AZ, not to mention TX.
Where I find the most differences: police attitudes.
I still can't figure out why French police officers feel the need to check IDs 24/7. But I do notice that when they stop people, they *systematically* stop those who are darker-skinned.

Art, if I may: Brigitte Bardot isn't that well-known nowadays among people under 30. Seriously, think Johnny Halliday. Even kids know him because of Optiiiic 2000 and the Guignols. :D
La grande vadrouille and Bienvenue chez les Chti might be a valid test, too.
"qu'est-ce que "la rentrée"?" might be a good question for all ages and social classes, too.
I get that the test is tongue-in-cheek but Brigitte Bardot should be reserved for males over 50 :)))

Unknown said...

Ouch. Touché. But nobody has noticed what Zidane, Biolay, and Bardot have in common: alliteration. Perhaps I should have chosen Lucky Luke, who had faded from memory but is now making a comeback with Andre Dujardin, who might be a better choice than Johnny Halliday, I think. No? I mean, OK, Johnny still draws a crowd, and he's got his young wife and kid, but let's face it: he's old enough to remember BB, like me. Serge Gainsbourg? Sylvie Vartan? Why is Johnny the survivor?

Passerby said...

Agreed history classes could cover more world history. Regarding Africa, I remember courses on Egypt (6e) and then colonization/decolinzation (1ere/terminale).

I do not think that geography however suffers from the same bias. At the end of 90s, for the "sujet du bac de géo" we prepared among other countries, Ivory Coast, Brazil, China & USA.

La grande vadrouille and Bienvenue chez les Chti might be a valid test, too.

Two good choices for a test. But if you are looking for something "cultisime" go for "Les Bronzés". A sure hit with most generations.

"Le planter de baton monsieur Duss!"