France ponders ancient myths of 'national identity'

France ponders ancient myths of 'national identity'

8th February 2010, Comments 0 comments

Critics argue Nicholas Sarkozy’s government search for a national identity has a hidden political agenda and will do the country more harm than good.

From the warlike tribes conquered by Julius Caesar, to the Basques and Bretons that give France's regions their local colour today, the French have never found it easy to define their "national identity".

However, Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing government is determined to try.

Immigration Minister Eric Besson has led a three-month consultation to ask people what they think makes them French, with a series of local debates whose organisers were to file their reports by Sunday.

In a recent speech as part of the debate, Besson referred to "the France that existed before France -- the one of scattered tribes described by Julius Caesar".

By contrast, "today, the French nation is a single people: a language, a territory, values, an institution: the Republic," he said last week, in a statement that sought to clarify his historical reference.

But how, critics ask, can France define "identity" in such a republic, historically made up of many regional, linguistic, religious and immigrant groups -- and in a country of egalitarian principles, why should it try?

The "debate" has been widely denounced as a ploy to poach far-right voters in March's regional elections -- a bid to manipulate the tricky question of identity in France for political ends.

Historians such as Jean-Claude Caron, an expert at one of the universities in Clermont-Ferrand who wrote a book on concepts of nationhood, says it is not the first time.

Caesar, who crushed the tribes of what he called Gaul in the first century BC, "was one of the first to construct an idea of a Gaul that was united under a chief called Vercingetorix, for his own political reasons," he told AFP.

"He invented a country so he could tell the Roman senators he needed to conquer it," Caron explained.

"But Vercingetorix had no idea of the existence of Gaul -- no idea of a united territory," he added. "The idea of Vercingetorix as a Gaulish patriot was purely an invention by Caesar... but this invention has endured."

Reconstruction of Julius Caesar's siege of Marseilles, France 

The legend of this Gaulish hero marked the beginning of a long game of identity-seeking, said Sudhir Hazareesingh, a historian from the former French colony of Mauritius who specialises in French history at Oxford University.

Ancient identity "is part of the French myth at least since the middle of the 19th century when they rediscover Vercingetorix... and there is this notion that French identity is something deep-rooted," he said.

"You can see it as being either 200 years old -- with the French revolution... or dating all the way back to the Franks," the Germanic tribe who chased out the Romans in the fifth century, he said.

There followed centuries of settlement by immigrants, from the northern Vikings who invaded what is now Normandy in the ninth century to the guest workers brought in from Italy and elsewhere from the early 20th.

"It's this notion of layered identity which one way or another always seems to come back," Hazareesingh said.

Since its revolution in 1789, France's republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity are supposed to make the country blind to its citizens' race and creed.

"France is not a race, it is not an ethnic group -- it is a community of different people who together build a nation with values, principles, rights and duties," Sarkozy said in a televised interview last week.

But critics say the current debate aims to play on just those racial issues, bringing tacitly into question the place of immigrants such as its large African and Muslim populations.

Critics say that by glossing over France's cultural mix in its abstract search for values and identity, the government may do more harm than good.

Besson's Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Solidarity Development "tells us basically banal things, playing on xenophobia and racism under cover of a discussion on citizenship and the nation," said Didier Fassin, a French sociologist at the US university of Princeton.

"By denying that it is a country of immigration and inventing a different identity from what it has, France is endangering its cohesion and unity," he said, in a recent interview in Telerama magazine.

The historian Caron saw the debate as a "dangerous" move to make citizens judge each other -- and unnecessary since the republic's laws already make it clear what citizenship means.

"The values of the republic are defined in the constitution," drawn up during the bloody years following the revolution, he told AFP.

"This defines the criteria for citizenship, which has nothing to do with national identity."

AFP / Roland Lloyd Parry / Expatica

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