Debating National Identity – French Culture Custody Battle

The French Government has officially open a national debate on France cultural identity, in hope of better defining what it means to be French. While most Pundits and 64% of the population know it is a political stunt to garner votes away from the anti-immigration far-right National Front party of Jean-Marie Lepen during March 2010 regional elections coming up. Critics warned that it is a dangerous thing to do because will bring a climate of xenophobia and single out non-white French. French President Nicolas Sarkozy defends the National debate, and contends that “Debating the national identity is not dangerous, it’s necessary.” 60% of French agree that it is necessary, but I doubt they agree on the dangerous part.

This debate will give France neither the answers it seeks nor the outcome it hoped for. What it will do however, is confirm the death of their good old “douce France”, and legitimize the face of the New France.

When in 1998, France won the football World cup, at home with a team heavily composed of immigrants, the team was dubbed Blanc, Black, Beur (White, Black, Brown), and became for all a symbol of hope, integration, equality, freedom, Fraternity. 1998 was for French the culmination of its republican ideals: Rejecting the US model of the “melting pot” and British tolerance of the customs of ethnic minorities, France officially dismisses any consideration of race, creed or color that could undermine national unity. Indeed ethnic minority is not a recognized concept, where the theoretically color-blind state does not distinguish between categories of citizens.

For Jean-Marie Lepen, however, the team was not French enough, because it had too many non-whites. So much for color-blind; this is when the debate should have taken place.

Failing to capitalize on the euphoria of 1998, and returning to business as usual, France reaped the first fruits of its policies in 2001, during the friendly football game between France and Algeria. As soon as the Marseillaise (French National anthem) started, fans started to boo loudly. While the action sparked outrage, most were quick to mention that the booing was not made by Algerian fans whose resentment toward France is historically based, but by French-born second and third-generation immigrants with French nationality. Strike 1

During the 2002 presidential election, Jean-Marie Lepen managed to make it to round 2, raising national concern over growing racism, and anti-Semitism in France. That election did not only reveal the complacency of the government toward social issues, but the hidden face of the French society. Strike 2

In 2005, already frustrated by their condition of life, and their constant harassment at the hand of the police, the youth in the banlieues (ghetto, project) went on a rioting spree that made International Headlines, lasted for 4 weeks, causing roughly 200 euros of damages. Strike 3

The malaise that exists in the Banlieues is real, and mainly affects French-born minorities with French nationality, immigrants with French citizenship, and both legal and illegal immigrants struggling to make a living. Most of them are from African origin, and usually referred as Blacks and Arabs. They are marginalized by the society regardless of their legal status or citizenship. They are blamed for the social ills in France, and at the exception of a few sports stars, the rest of the minority are not really French to the general white population.

Then interior minister Sarkozy response to the civil unrest was to blame the “Rascals”, and clean up the Banlieues with Karcher (a high pressure detergent made in Germany). Many have also blamed the civil unrest on Polygamy, since many African immigrants are from West Africa, and Muslim Arabs. As a matter of fact, Sarkozy based part of his presidential campaign on promising tough laws on immigration, reaffirming the French national identity, and giving more rights to the police. As soon as he became president, Sarkozy appointed Eric Besson minister to a newly formed Immigration, Integration, and National identity and Solidarity development ministry.

Today, Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, and Besson, who was born in Morocco from a Lebanese mother, and lived there until he was 17, are setting a National debate with the undertone that Immigrants have a hard time integrating the French society because they do not understand what it means to be French. They are also trying to sell the speech that this is for a national unity, and to facilitate the assimilation of immigrants. Indeed, when they say Immigrants, really, what they are implying is African immigrants, notably Arabs and blacks. How can one not recall the national debate on allowing Muslim women to wear their head scarf in school? During a recent speech, Sarkozy took new aim at the face-covering, all-enveloping Islamic robe worn by a very small minority of Muslim women, saying there is “no place for the subservience of women” in France.” Yes, it is all about subservience, just like Canada has recently announced in its immigration policies that it will not tolerate “Foreign Barbaric Practices” in Canada. Riecently, Sarkozy voiced his support to the Swiss government over their decision to ban the construction of minaret in their country.

It is obviously very clear that Sarkozy who has an acute understanding of Islam can make such claims, naturally the appearance of Half naked women in buses stops and billboard has nothing subservient, or maybe the thriving porn industry that is anything but taboo in France, is a call for the glorification of women.

Among the questions Besson has suggested for the debates: Should France implement “integration contracts,” which would set minimal levels of language and cultural knowledge for citizenship; and should students be required to sing the national anthem “La Marseillaise” at least once a year?

Some fear that these types of questions – even the debates themselves – invite assumptions that generations of immigrants have already undermined France’s identity and may provoke nationalist sentiments long championed by Le Pen. “When you put immigration and national identity side by side, it creates the notion that immigration poses a threat to national identity – which can inspire racism,” Mouloud Aounit, president of the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples, told the daily l’Humanité on Nov. 2. “But this debate also reveals an identity crisis of a part of French society… and the failure of its model of integration, which doesn’t allow people to do just that.”

The question is how will that bring forth a different or modified setup than the one that already exists? Can France really answer those questions? If France is going through an identity crisis, it is probably because it failed to look from within to see among its immigrants what the modern French people should look like. Blaming generations of immigrants as undermining the French Culture is like blaming your reflections for the changes you made to yourself. When France decided to colonize Africa, it took upon itself to spread the French language and the French Culture. It did its best to educate African people about the way it functions so they could serve its “empire” better. France was proud to see its loyal subjects mimic all that was French. When Africans started to immigrate in France, it was important that they be able to speak French, understand the French system and evolve in a French community. France set up schools all across Africa, where they would teach French language, French culture, French values, and yes, even “la Marseillaise”. The only characteristic that was left out is that in spite of all that, THEY WOULD NOT BE FRENCH.

Amilcar Cabral said that “the ideal for foreign domination, whether imperialist or not, would be to choose 1) either to liquidate practically all the population of the dominated country, thereby eliminating the possibilities for cultural resistance; or

2) succeed in imposing itself without damage to the culture of the dominated people-that is to harmonize economic and political domination of these people with their cultural personality.

France certainly applied both methods at some point and to a certain degree, but if they have succeed in imposing themselves to the African culture, and enjoying a period of time where for too many Africans, France was what Israel is to Jewish people, things have changed. By marginalizing the second, third generation of immigrants, and denying them full-fledged French patriotism, they have reversed their cultural advantage. Unable to claim France has their homeland; many French-born immigrants resorted in identifying with their newly arrived brothers and sisters. It is therefore not surprising that the booing of the Marseillaise was not an isolated incident.

The same thing happened during a France-Morocco game in 2007, and again in 2009 during France-Tunisia that really showed that France does not learn anything, as the summoned a singer of Tunisian origin called Laam to sing the French national Anthem. Laam was loudly booed, while Amina who is from Tunisia was cheered for singing the Tunisian National Anthem. In 1998 when France won the World cup, people danced in the street in Brazzaville, Congo, to my dismay of course, but that’s not the point. On November 18, 2009, France finally qualified for the world Cup in South Africa. People, mostly of Arab-decent walked out in the street, danced on top of cars and celebrated all night. One may assume that they were happy for France until…the abundance of Algerian flags revealed that they were actually celebrating Algeria’s qualification to the world cup at the hand of Egypt, which happened the same day.

France conundrum is easy to assess, on one side it has an aging population, hard to replace due to slow birth rate, on the other, it has a bunch of young people mostly out of immigration who still have a strong attachment with their ancestral home, and finally, its youth is more in tune with Coupe decale than Francis Cabrel. This National debate has more to do with rekindling or implanting French Patriotism in a generation that has finally reconnected with its roots. This debate is secretly generated by the fear that what France has done to others is finally happening to them. The debate has absolutely nothing to do with National unity, integration or assimilation. To justify the debate, Sarkozy said a few things that are equally offensive than they are ignorant:

The peoples of Europe are welcoming and tolerant: it’s in their nature and in their culture. But they don’t want their way of life, their mode of thinking and their social relations distorted.

I assume Mr. Sarkozy that the people of Africa were so intolerant and unwelcoming that they saw the eve of Colonization coming to them. Maybe you think that the peoples of Africa absolutely do not care about their way of life and mode of thinking, which is why you claim in Dakar that they have yet to enter modernity. Naturally you must think that we were eager to learn French, embrace a culture that rejects family values, desecrate marriage, and has to put everything in writing because its word cannot be trusted, lie to gain, tortures other human beings, and has no problem disrupting the social structure of others for the sake of a few gallons of oil. Yes, Sarko, we don’t mind having our way of life, mode of thinking and social relations distorted, it however did happen and still does, and you are a player in it; So unless you are willing to repair those wrongs, please do not complain, it is fair game.

“France is a nation of tolerance and respect, but it also asks to be respected,” Sarkozy told farmers in southeastern France earlier this month. One cannot reap the advantages of living in France “without respecting any of its laws, any of its values, any of its principles.”

I suppose Mr. Sarkozy that France respected the people of Africa when it established Françafrique, I assume it tolerated them when it set up massive deportations where Airplanes were a modern version of slave boats. I suppose we, Africans never asked to be respected, which is why you had no problem interfering in our affairs, corrupting our leaders, abusing our natural resources and forcing our people to live in unbearable condition while on your soil, when yours live like emperors on ours. Maybe it is OK for French mercenaries and politicians to bend national rules to reap the benefits of our natural resources without respecting our laws. I concur that you are in favor of your many perverted citizens who find it principled and valuable to sexually abuse, and traffic our youth, fostering prostitution and disseminating diseases with the knowledge that medical care are not always available. Maybe this is what you call advantages.

How would Sarkozy dare to compare our values when Lilian Thuram and Patrick Viera were criticized by Sarkozy and his colleagues for finding human enough for them to offer Football tickets to undocumented immigrants who had endured so much in their journey for a better life; No, Sarkozy thinks it is much better to travel to Chad and free some nurses who were smuggling African kids by hundred outside of their home country. I guess child Trafficking is one of the value Sarkozy does not want to see distorted.

Of course Mr. Sarkozy is not alone, since other members of his cabal are willing to follow in his missteps: In future an immigrant arriving in Germany and wishing to stay may have to sign an “integration contract”. That is the idea of the Integration Minister, Maria Boehmer. The contract would set out basic German “values,” including “freedom of speech” and “equal rights for women”. The idea behind this is the club: if you join you have to accept the rules. “Anyone who wants to live here for a long time,” says the minister, “and who wants to work has to say ‘yes’ to our country”.

Did Africans said yes when you forced millions of them to relocate in Europe? Did African said yes when you destroyed their economies forcing them to go in foreign places so they could make a living? Did Africans said yes to a relationship with the West that is one-sided? Did Europe say Yes when we asked for equal trade? Did you say yes when we attempted to set the prices of our own products? Dumping, globalization, Tariffs, did we say yes to all that as well?

For generations, France and others have meddled in African affairs, disrupting societies, values and structure. They have imposed their way of life, and government. They have created the conditions that triggered a massive brain drain they benefited from. They have compelled immigrants to live in Europe yet, still retain their African culture. Now that they witness the strength and the resolve of that culture, they are afraid; now that they see that young immigrant’s heroes are issued from their own neighbourhood, they are concerned. Andre Valentin, mayor of a little city in France said during the national debate that took place in what some may refer as a town hall: We have to be very careful, and act, because if we don’t, we are going to be swallowed.

The truth is that they are going to be swallowed, but it is the French culture of old that is going to be swallowed. It is the French culture that was keen to penetrate other cultures, and stupidly believed that it would not have a counter-effect that will be swallowed. As Hama Tuma said:

France does not know itself really. There was a time it considered itself an Empire, an era that ended after Vietnam and Algeria, though someone has forgotten to tell France that, and thus it continues to strut as a big Empire with tin pot dictators of small countries in Africa fawning over or under it in a Françafrique that is as laughable as the British Commonwealth.

The Empire syndrome gives an obsession with History and the need to mould others into one’s will or under one’s rule and diktat. Furthermore, France has suffered many humiliations (1870, 1940, etc) but it has refused to accept or acknowledge this heavy weight of history and pretends all is well in its pursuit of grandeur.

Arguably, the distance that existed between Francophone and Anglophone in Africa, and was often attributed to a language barrier, was equally inherited by the petty rivalry between France and England, and was passed on when imposed to us. Those distances are being broken everyday, as Africans understand that they have more in common between themselves than with France or England.

There is only one concern the Africans must have, and that is if the struggle for equality generates a greater interest than it should in this debate from African immigrants in France. If immigrants see in this debate their last chance to be full fledged French; some may jump into it too fast and with both feet. If that happens, France would reach its goal, and as Jean-Marie Lepen’s daughter Marine advocates, “Forcing the immigrant to choose a nationality.” For their sake, African immigrants should resist the urge to place too greater value on their French nationality at the expense of their African origin, because France banks on that to recreate the petit-Bourgeois who once roamed African Colonial elite protectorates. Chinweizu recalls in his classic book “the west and the Rest of us”, that the British have already played with those technical distinctions that are reminiscent of what is at stake with this national debate:

“The colonies were technically British territory; the protectorates were technically African territories under British protection.(…)The people in the colonies could demand the rights of British citizens, whereas the people of protectorates could not…obligations of British citizenship could be imposed upon the colonials but not on the protected persons (…)The impact of Colonization of the protectorates was to force African nationalists to choose between an Anti-colonialism aimed at liberation from imperialism and at the restoration of sovereignty to African protectorates, and an alternative anti-colonialism aimed at reforming the despotic manners of foreign rule and at winning civil liberties for African subjects of the European empires (…) By demanding civil liberties available in the empires, African would be tacitly accepting their forced inclusion within them. They would be acquiescing in their assimilation by European empires, cultures, histories and Traditions. And the most they could expect to attain, as people or a territory, would be dominion or local autonomy within the empires, not sovereignty outside them. Those who rightly saw the goals of African anti-colonialism as the overthrow of alien rule, the return of political sovereignty to the peoples of the continent, and a return of Africa to her own cultural and historical stream, were disturbed at such an insidious opportunities opened up by the colonization of the protectorates. Legal adoption and cultural assimilation by Europe was not the proper goal of African anti-colonialism. An ameliorated but indefinite colonization was not a prospect to choose over initiatives of restored sovereignty.”

If we substitute Territory with Identity, and sovereignty with dignity, we have a clearer picture of what this national debate can do; it can back into a corner African immigrants, and require them to “assimilate” or embrace French culture as the government sees it fit. By doing so, as assimilated French they may be under the pressure to adhere to France’s policies, and action in Africa. In the same process, they will be forced to choose between their new home and their roots. France would love more than anything to see African immigrants reject their culture and fully embrace a French identity; this is politically logical and helpful, thus dangerous. Hama Tuma again reminds us that:

The identity crisis that has struck France has thrown it into a contradiction in which it considers islands inhabited by dark skinned fellows as its overseas territories and the people as French at the same time, as it yearns feverishly to keep its basically white identity.

The Kenyans had an attorney general called Charles Njonjo who believed he was British and looked down upon his countrymen. For a while, Idi Amin imagined he was a Scot. Emperor Bokassa called De Gaulle Papa and took himself as French. Some Arabs think they are white and discriminate against Black Africans while in Ethiopia, the birthplace of human kind, the people think they are the one and only chosen people. Delusions and illusions over identity, a mess into which the argument seeking French want to wade in.

I can empathize with France, losing one identity is not a jolly experience, and seeing one’s culture erode is a painful experience, but instead of blaming the immigrants, shouldn’t France learn from them? After all, they have done the same thing to them.

When someone kills another human being, it is called homicide; when it is an entire nation that is killed, it is called genocide. When one country is taken by force, plundered and abused, it used to be called an Invasion, now it is called Intervention. When it is half a continent that is taken by force, abused and plundered, it used to be called Colonization, now it is just called Françafrique.

Things change, and France has to deal with it. This national debate will not produce any fruits because its timing is poor, its intention are wrong, and its ambition is plain dangerous.

France claim that this debate is to fight discrimination; discrimination is fought by exchange and understanding, not by forced integration. France also claim that the debate is to help immigrants assimilate, they already did, they have assimilated the French Culture into their African background; now it is time for the French to assimilate the African culture into the French background. When two nations meet, a cultural exchange is bound to happen. France is the one who forced the meeting, now if they want to understand the exchange; they are the one who need to review their history, not the immigrants. A look at the contribution of Immigrants to France history is in order to understand not what it means to be French, but what France has become. Emmanuelle Saada, a sociologist and historian at Columbia University and France’s Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales said ” I am amazed at this debate. It’s a political event (and) doesn’t represent any deep need in society; National identity is not up to us to establish as a norm for us to conform to. National identity just happens…. In a big sense, it is outside our control.” And, she adds, “It’s not for any government to decide.”

For many French citizen who were either born in France or were naturalized France, this debate is bitter sweet, because on one side, it may offer an opportunity to revindicate their rights to be french, but on the other side, it seems to penalize them for a part of their history they had no control in; as many of them are quick to defend their African ancestry and the circumstances that forces them and their descendant, both Africans and French to seek a better life in France. They will remind France that they did not ask to be colonized by France, France, came to them. France imposed its languages, values and morals to Africans.

At some point it was even forbidden for Africans to speak their national languages. They (France) used Africans in their different wars ( W1,WW2,Indochina…). The current immigrants parents, grandparents died for “LA PATRIE”.

France even requisitioned cows,chickens, eggs, rice and what not for what they called “effort de guerre”; furthermore, Some of the survivors, in the case of the 2nd world war, were even killed by the same French army they fought for just for asking their money after the war (CAMP THIAROYE). The survivors of WW2 are only receiving a quarter of their pension compared to their french counterpart. President Chirac was supposed to repair that injustice but did not,we do not know if Sarkozy did…

After the 2nd World War, France is the One who called on Africans to rebuild Paris…This is how the first big waves of Africans whether from the West, Center or North arrived in France. Once again they took Africans, used them, and parked them in those ghettos that they call “cites”. They never thought about the future, they never thought that those people to whom they gave permission to bring their wives would have kids that could or would stay in France… All of the sudden they want all of them to disappear from the French soil.

As long as those people would not feel integrated, meaning respected and non discriminated, things like booing the national anthems are nothing compared to what could happen in the coming years.

You can not expect for somebody who was born from foreign parents or in a country other than France to fully embrace the French culture and totally reject his or her values and cultures. Integration is a two-way process you give and receive at the same time.

That is one thing American people understood and why this nation is what it is. English, Italians, Irish, Mexicans, Caribbean,Africans, Asians all contributed to this country because they felt fully integrated. At the same time they embraced for most of them the “American way of life”.

The French governing elite has to be very careful with this kind of identity debate because it is very dangerous. We all know what the policy of “Ivoirite” led to in Cote d’Ivoire for example. That is the same kind of mentality that – when pushed to the extreme – led to Nazism and other fascism in Europe.
We have no choice but to live together so it would better for everybody to take, learn and share cultures with the “other”.

That fear of being “swamped” by the “other” is a nonsense nowadays as the world is now a small village as we are so mixed and interconnected.

For any country that has a strong culture, this conclusion is not hard to understand. If France understands what a National Identity is, they will realize that they do not need a National Debate…au contraire.