Friday, July 15, 2011


Eva Joly's criticism of yesterday's military parade (see previous post) has provoked a curious tempest. Already, even before her remarks, some were criticizing her accent.

Aujourd’hui, des orthophonistes spécialisés sont tout à fait capables de gommer presqu’intégralement un accent trop prononcé en quelques semaines, au pire quelques mois. N’est-ce pas montrer du respect à ce peuple dont on sollicite les suffrages que de se mettre dans les meilleures conditions d’être compris par lui ?

Luc Rosenzweig wrote these words as the son of an immigrant who was ridiculed by his French friends for his Teutonic accent. Philippe Bilger shows less comprehension:

Parce que je ne rêve pas, comme elle, d'une présidence "des accents et du sang mêlé" - quel conformisme rentable !- pas plus qu'ambiguë dans ses choix, ses fonctions ici ou là et ses inclinations, qu'on ne vienne pas m'opposer que je serais un suppôt du racisme. Je ne fantasme sur aucune pureté française. Je n'ai pas le moindre goût pour les expulsions gratuites. Je ne veux pas vider la France de ceux qui l'aiment et la respectent. Les étrangers, de quelque nationalité qu'ils soient, nous honorent grâce à leur présence quand ils honorent la France et ses valeurs. Je me contente seulement d'aspirer à un président de la République qui serait français sans équivoque ni confusion et dont la première mesure ne serait pas de porter atteinte à une date, à un symbole, à l'histoire de notre pays. (italics added)

Taking Bilger at his word, I won't tax him with "racism" or even "xenophobia." He has expressed a version of patriotism, as has Rosenzweig. But Tocqueville offers another possibility:

Another, more rational form of patriotism also exists: it is less generous, less ardent perhaps, but more fruitful and durable. This second form of patriotism is born of enlightenment. It develops with the aid of laws, grows with the exercise of rights, and eventually comes to be bound up in a way with personal interest. People understand how their country’s well-being influences their own. They know that the law allows them to contribute to that well-being, and they take an interest in their country’s prosperity, initially as something useful to them but later as their own handiwork.

In the life of a nation, however, there may come a time when ancient customs are transformed, mores decay, faiths are shaken, memories lose their prestige, but enlightenment has yet to complete its work and political rights remain insecure or limited. At such times the only light in which men can see their country is a feeble and dubious one. Patriotic feeling no longer attaches to the soil, which to the people who live on it has become mere inanimate earth; or to ancestral customs, which they have learned to see as confining; or to religion, of which they are skeptical; or to the laws, which they do not make; or to the lawmaker, whom they fear and despise. Hence they cannot see their country anywhere, in either its proper guise or any other, and they withdraw into narrow, unenlightened selfishness. They have escaped prejudice but not yet embraced the empire of reason. Lacking both the instinctive patriotism of monarchy and the considered patriotism of a republic, they find themselves stuck somewhere between the two, surrounded by confusion and misery. (Democracy in America, I.2.6)

Bilger, I think, longs for "the instinctive patriotism of monarchy," while Rosenzweig looks back to "the considered patriotism of a republic," which, in its idealized version, would have made room for his father, a refugee from Nazi Germany, but which in fact insisted on a linguistic assimilation that took a generation to achieve. France is now trying to find its way forward with a substantial number of citizens in its midst who do not meet all the old criteria of assimilation (they speak with accents, they do not necessarily hide their non-majoritarian religious practices, they have their own "ancestral customs," and they do not "love the soil" because they live in cities). But their hosts are really no more certain than are the newcomers of what their patriotic sentiments actually attach to, because, as Tocqueville says, they, too, lack both "the instinctive patriotism" whose social basis no longer exists and "the considered patriotism of a republic" whose founding myths no longer coincide sufficiently with the social texture of today's society. So we see, around innocuous remarks like Joly's about yesterday's parade, a momentary bristling of emotions that always lie just below the surface.

But what, really, is the point of Bilger's comment? How can Joly's remarks be said to "porter atteinte à un symbole de notre pays?" Isn't every symbol of a country there to be interpreted? Aren't symbols always contested? Isn't that the lesson of the thousands of pages of Les Lieux de mémoire? And why should the taking of the Bastille by the people in a popular insurrection be represented by a military parade in which the forces of the state play the starring role? Isn't that, too, a debatable representation of l'histoire de notre pays? Why shouldn't the people be included as well among the marchers--which, after all, was all that Joly was suggesting, not that the military be excluded?

I said yesterday that I thought Joly's remark was impolitic. Evidently I was right. Nevertheless, I feel called upon to defend her from the criticism that because she speaks with an accent, she has no right to an opinion about the interpretation of national symbols. Like her critic Bilger, she spent her career in the judicial system of her adopted country and devoted herself to exposing some of the corruption of its political system. That service to France is as honorable as any soldier's service, and to say that is to take nothing away from the soldiers, six of whom died this week in Afghanistan. But let's be clear about what patriotism is and what it is not: in a republic of laws, the mission of the military is to defend justice, not to promote conquest. A judge has every right to speak out on Bastille Day and deserves as much respect and attention, I would think, as bearded legionnaires and picturesque Polynesians.

UPDATE: Fillon piles on, from Abidjan:

Depuis Abidjan, où il est en voyage officiel, le premier ministre a dénoncé vendredi la proposition de la candidate écologiste de supprimer le défilé militaire du 14-Juillet. "Cette dame n'a pas une culture très ancienne des traditions françaises, des valeurs françaises, de l'histoire française", a-t-il déclaré lors d'une conférence de presse. (AFP)


Anonymous said...

this is precisely what I was talking about in my previous comment :)

Kirk said...

Two comments. If the French constitution allows someone not born in France to run for high office, so be it. If people don't like it, too bad for them.

Second, you simply cannot "gommer" a foreign accent. I taught English as a foreign language for many years, and have an MSc in applied linguistics. In general, unless someone learns a language before around puberty, they'll have an accent. There's little to do about it. I've been in France for more than 25 years, and I still have a bit of an accent. That's a specious argument.

Dick Sindall said...

Good analysis, Art, and healthful food for thought on this side of the Atlantic, too.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why the American constitution doesn't allow someone not born in United States to run for presidency.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Because the Framers were afraid that a foreign prince might attempt to seize control of the government by standing for election.

Anonymous said...

Ok, thank you Mr Goldhammer.
But now this risk is over.

Anonymous said...

(sorry if this is a double, I've got trouble with blogspot in my current location)
An excellent article by Revel:

Anonymous said...

My apologies: the author of the aforementioned excellent article is Renaud DELY (got mixed up with the "re" and the "del" and ..... :s)

Anonymous said...

I agree 100% with Cohn-Bendit:

« Cela me paraît hors du temps. La République ne se réduit pas simplement à l'armée. Et puis les seuls pays où on ne voit parader que des militaires et des missiles, c'est qui ? La Chine, la Russie, la Corée du Nord ! Ce n'est quand même pas très glorieux. »

It's a pity that populism reigns in this country in such a profound manner.

brent said...

Actually the Founding Fathers in their prescience wanted to head off a Schwarzenegger/Terminator presidency.
But more seriously, Art's post points to something very timely about the anachronistic resurgence of patriotism as reflexive (monarchic) nationalism. Nearly all of France's politicians across the spectrum from PS to UMP are racing backwards to catch up to Marine Le Pen, but they seem oblivious to the encouragement they thus give to her and her movement.