Wednesday, October 28, 2009

National Identity debate

French Immigration minister Eric Besson has declared on Sunday that he will re-launch a nation-wide debate for the next couple of months on national identity. He wants to re-assess and re-define 'what does it mean today to be French, what are the values that unify the French people, what is the nature of the link which makes them French and that they should be proud of.' (Good luck!).
The theme of national identity was a pillar of  Nicolas Sarkozy' electoral campaign, and keeps on re-emerging throughout his mandate. Immigration has profoundly affected the French society in the last 40 years. In 2003, after having doubled in 8 years, France has seen 256 600 'regular entries' and 82 000 political asylum request. This is without taking into considerations children, illigal immigrants, second and third generation immigrants. The French national institute of statistics INSEE estimated that 4.9 million foreign-born immigrants live in France in 2006 (8% of the country's population). The number of French citizens with foreign origins is generally thought to be around 6.7 million, according to the 1999 Census conducted by INSEE, which ultimately represents one tenth of the country's population. (Ranked by the largest national groups, above 60,000 persons).


Mouvements of this amplitude unfortunately at some point translate into fragmentation and ghettisation of the population, of these new citizens, a substantial majority of which often arrive in desperate conditions from far and empoverished countries. That is why the government sees at risk its national unity and keeps re-launching the debate on national identity.

As an Italian native residing in France now for 8 years, I am often amused by the different approaches of these two countries to the issue of immigration. For instance, France embraces and professes laicism, while tolerating the observance of religions privatly. But you can be sure that you will never see any religious symbol in a French public school. A huge mediatic debate took place in 2008 when the European Court supported the French justice for having suspended in 1999 two muslim students from their public school, who had refused to remove their foulard at school. The very same Eric Besson is currently expressing strong views against the burqa in public, claiming its wearing is antithetic to the essence of French values.

Meanwhile, in Italy, the national birth rate is barely 0.8% and any population growthis entirely due to immigration (negative natural balance of -7 000 individuals in 2007), and in the classrooms we hardly have any Italian students, but a plethora of Roumanians, Albanians,  Marocans,  Chinese, Ukrainian, Filipino, Polish, Indian (source: Caritas/Migrantes, Immigrazione Dossier Statistico 2008); the gouvernment is currently having violent and animated discussions following a proposal (supported even by the Vatican) by the Vice Minister of Economic Development to introduce an hour of Islam teaching in the Italian public schools, where the teaching of "Religion," that is the history of the Catholic religion, has been the norm. The distance of these two particular examples doesn't stop to puzzle me. And yet, what ensures a proper integration? Where do we set the limits exactly to the right to observe one's faith or to live his/her own traditions democratically and the respect toward the local customs/values like laicism in France? To what extend do we need laws and to what extent do we need to reform our civic education?

One of the initiatives that the French ministry of immigration insists on, is the requirement of a certian level of fluency in French for immigrants upon entering the country, and the organization of free courses for new arrivals. I think that is is a fair requirement; language is an essential tool for integration and for human interaction and allowing the new-comers to better understand and better express themselves is definitely a step forward toward a successful integration. Yet, to get back to the original theme of this post, do immigrants need to adhere to the national identity definition as well? Is it necessary for them to feel French? Is it even possible? As long as I will live here, I will always feel Italian. Even though I pay my taxes in France, I abide by the French laws, I embrace the local lifestyle, customs and traditions (I looooove champagne! And oysters!), I respect and recognize the French authorithies, I cannot possibly feel French! I ask this question to every multi-lingual/expatriate/international profile I encounter: what do you feel, in terms of nationality? And more often the not, the answer reflects the place where we have spent a substantial part of our youth, regardless of the mother-tongue or the nationality of the parents.

As immigration evolves, as third culture kids increase, as the new generation of multilingual and multinationals spans borders and melts the pots, does it still make sense to talk about national identity? When foreign-borns in a country like France will reach 50%, will it still make sense? Will it still be needed?

And regardless of immigration, if we consider just the geographic vastity of a country like France and its richness in regional climates, cultures and customs, can we still talk about national identity? Because the way someone from Marseille might feel French is quite different form the definition you would get from a resident of Neuilly-Sur-Seine (the chic suburb of Paris) or a Breton, for instance. Let us not forget that regional dialects were suppressed (unfortunately) shortly after the French Revolution. Abbé Grégoire is  notorious for writing his "Report on the necessity and means to annihilate the patois and to universalise the use of the French language," which he presented on June 4, 1794 to the National Convention. According to his own findings, a vast majority of people in France spoke one of 33 dialects patois and he argued that French had to be imposed on the population and all other dialects eradicated. Suddenly, not only Occitan, but also Catalan, Basque, Breton, and several other ancient languages were discouraged and actively suppressed. School pupils were punished well within living memory for speaking their native language on school premises. Regional identities were sacrified for the benefit of an alleged national one...but did it ever exist?

I already wrote about national identity here, and I also wrote a brief article for the (*sigh!*) last issue of Multilingual Living, which should be issued soon (will post when it will be out and about). The debate in France promises to be a...colorful one! Stay tuned for further reporting...

PS: Eric Besson has evoked the possibility to have the young French students sing the French national anthom at some occasion thoughout the school year, as a way to restore national pride and belonging.
I'm working on a post on the role of national anthoms today for multicultural communities. See the new poll  on the right-hand side and feel free to take part!


Jan Exner said...

The UK approach is different again: as long as they pay taxes, let them do whatever they want.

I think falling back to "regional identities" might be an idea, possibly coupled with some kind of a European identity to tie us all together. I think I'd like that.

Clo said...

Thanks for your insight Jan. which reminds me, I do pay taxes in France yet I am not allowed to vote! I just think the debate should take into consideration the effects of globalisation, while I have a feeling that it will resolve into some sterile and senseless resolutions such as having kids singing the national anthem daily or start placing the flag everywhere...

Marc said...

Très intéressant, même si les questions sont plus claires que les réponses. Merci pour le "good luck" !
Blague à part, ça semble un challenge que de vouloir participer à un débat sur l'identité nationale française quand tu dis que tu ne te sens pas française, et que tu contestes même qu'une telle identité existe (ce qui revient peut-être au même ?).
L'identité nationale (française ou autre) est une illusion auto-réalisatrice. A partir du moment où un groupe (dont je fais parti) estime avoir en commun un certain nombre de valeurs collectives, l'identité est fondée et peut difficilement être contestée de l'extérieur (non pas parce que tu n'es pas française, mais parce que tu n'identitifies pas ces valeurs, ce qui est difficile même pour un natif).
En fait, l'identité est comme un contrat : elle ne peut être comprise et négociée que par quelqu'un qui veut signer ce contrat, mais qui cherche encore les meilleurs termes. L'identité commence par un désir, par une reconnaissance, mais celui qui ne possède pas ce désir ne peut l'infirmer chez les autres, surtout quand ces autres représentent plusieurs millions d'individus et quelques siècles d'une tradition intellectuelle et politique qui est reconnue et identifiée en dehors même des frontières nationales.
Il est de la nature même de cet objet virtuel collectif qu'est une identité nationale d'être constament revisitée en fonction des évolutions, petites ou grandes, de l'Histoire. Cela se fait toujours dans la douleur, du au fait que cette définition soit à la fois collective et subjective, ce qui ne veut pas dire qu'elle soit impossible ou superflue. Se pose en effet la question de la nécessité d'une identité, d'un projet et de valeurs partagées par un groupe et sur lesquels vont s'appuyer les textes législatifs et règlementaires.
Ton analyse me semble plus fructueuse quand elle s'appuie sur sur des comparaisons trans-nationales où tes connaissances sont indispensables.
tu dis : "Yet, to get back to the original theme of this post, do immigrants need to adhere to the national identity definition as well? Is it necessary for them to feel French?"
Je pense qu'il est nécessaire de bien faire la différence entre ce qu'il est demandé à un immigrant (respect des lois, payer ses impôts, etc.) et ce qu'il est souhaitable de trouver chez un candidat à la nationalité, ce qui n'est pas la même chose.
Bon c'est pas tout, j'entends la Marseillaise jouée en entrée du match de handball France-Espagne, on va essayer de mettre à l'épreuve mon sentiment national ;-)