The French National Identity in Crisis

France is a country that has much pride in its history and traditions. To outsiders it holds an idealistic view of eating and drinking during the day, and protesting in the streets during the night. It is a country that also holds their national identity in high regard. The issue comes when the national identity does not represent those who live in the nation. Moreover, there is an issue when preserving the national identity means ejecting those who do not belong.

Many would describe the French national identity using one defining factor and that is a shared history of coming from Gallic and Frankish ancestry, and a shared language and shared culture. However, France started out as a mix of diverse regions all with their own languages and ways of life. It then grew to be a united country under the nationalistic ideals of “Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité,” this however is not something that was constant. This ‘identity’ has had to change over the recent years. No longer can a country’s identity completely based on its history or its first people, one can look at the Americas for larger version of that. France has to reconcile the views it has of itself with the changing landscape that is globalism. This discussion has, however, turned once again to the discussion of religion. Now the conversation is not one the strife between Catholicism and Protestantism, now it is Islam that is finding a place in French (and western) culture. For a secular country France still has a lot of religious traditions for example Sundays being days of rest, religious holidays like Christmas and Easter etc. With huge amounts of Muslims now living in France, from ex-colonies or immigrants, France now has the job of welcoming a new identity.

In the last few years our news has been barraged with things from birkini bans to harassment of Muslim and North African French citizens. Moreover, with the refugee crisis starting in 2012 this conversation has become more and more important to the future of France. It is actually a key conversation in the upcoming French election. With one party promoting protectionism and nationalism, and another globalization one can assume France is divided on the subject. In one camp you have Former President Nicolas Sarkozy saying that immigrants to France should be taught that their ancestors were now the Gauls. Essentially if you are going to live in France you will conform to the “French” national identity. However, the critics of this statement were quick to point out that the Gauls were just one of many ancestors including the Romans, Normans, Arabs etc. Sarkozy’s views are to perpetuate the mythified view of French history to breed patriotism. This way of thinking can be seen in countries like the United States where they have a very polished view of what it means to be American. Both the USA and France claim to be countries that have a history of belief in human rights with their own declarations for rights. The difference between America and France however, is that France has about 1500 years of history to Americas mere 238. If we are to assume that this is the French identity, then are we to assume that the French of the past were not French.

With candidates like Marine Le Pen, the nationalistic view of France is taken much further. Her views of preserving the French national identity means expelling those who will disrupt it. Her vows are to close the borders to immigration and end multiculturalism. This is spurred by the tense mood in France today due to the threat of terrorism and mass unemployment (over 9%), the French people are seeking a change, Le Pen offers her version of a solution to the problem.

Rather than the ideas of forced assimilation that Sarkozy had, her ideas are just to close the borders completely. This view of identity preservation is not only becoming big in France, but it is growing all over the world. This fear of the outside world and fear of change is common in most western countries, some already taking action. A few examples of countries that have taken measures to separate themselves are the UK with BREXIT, and The US with the implementation of a travel ban.

Despite Marine Le Pen being such an extreme far-right candidate she has lots of support from the French people, she appeals to those tired of politics. There is much resentment among the French people about immigrants, most specifically muslim immigrants. There is the feeling of being invaded, like the French invaded in the past, and the halal shops on the corner are constant reminders. Marine Le Pen uses this unrest to drive her campaign, in a speech in Paris Le Pen stated that, “[i]f you come to our country, don’t expect to be taken care of, to be looked after, that your children will be educated without charge,” in reference to illegal immigrants. France has been on the receiving end of a large influx of migrants, they have accepted a large amount compared to neighbouring countries. This means that to some France might seem like a completely different country.

While illegal immigrants are a huge topic of discussion during the election as far as immigration goes, Le Pen and many other candidates have focused on Muslim immigration. Nonna Mayer, expert on the National Front, stated that to Le Pen, “The enemy is the other. The other is the immigrant and the immigrant is Islam.” After the Paris attack Le Pen proposed to strip dual nationality Muslims if they had extremist views. This however was supported by most candidates, proving that the fear is not only something found in the far right. This view of Muslims then affects their current methods of dealing with muslim immigrants. Banishing them to the banlieues means that Arab and African Muslims are not assimilating but re-islamicising. By placing the Muslim immigrants as the ‘other’, and treating them so, France is creating the opposite of what they want. People are scared and frustrated with the world leaders, feeling that their rights are not being protected. Le Pen promotes an idealistic view for many people, and that is going back to the old ways before globalization. The idea of closing the borders and only worrying about “French” people is an attractive notion to some. The issue that comes with this are that the old ways are not necessarily the good ways, and that France is now to strongly connected with the rest of the world. The belief that one can return to a simple life, that may have never existed, is only looking at a problem from one side. It is too easy to blame the “other” for ones problems rather than looking at the root in a difficult place.

Letting go of ones perceived national identity is never easy, but doing so means to create a less toxic environment for those who differ. While preserving the national identity through protectionism seems like the way to solve all the problems, it is only putting a bandage over a seeping wound. That wound being the unhappy population of people who feel they are being left behind. Rather than creating a false sense of security by closing the doors, politicians must look to the long-term rather than the short-term. They must find what France’s new ambition is going to be and pursue it.


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