The evolving controversy around French identity, a key in shaping my interest in political philosophy” was how I began my college admissions essay three years ago.
After two years of university studies, I can confidently say I was lacking the audacity to call what France is going through a crisis.
This statement however makes a large section of the French population rather uncomfortable. That discomfort is almost caricatured by Gerard Darmanin’s “fear of communautarisme spreading in France.”
IS IT RACIST?
To a lot of French people, the problem is not a systemic or vertical issue, but an individual one, that comes from certain minorities’ individuals intentionally setting themselves apart from French society to cause disturbance in an already almost perfect order.
France isn’t racist because it says it isn’t. And ultimately, the French motto is “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” so how could a state, which holds these values as its motto, possibly be anything but equal?
The prompt of French universalism today ultimately tends to yield “un dialogue de sourds” with one side arguing French ideals are the ground of our constitution, equality and freedom are the essence. Therefore, it is inconceivable that the French institutions, state, people are anything BUT in agreement with these ideals.
UNIVERSALISM VS. REALITY
There are plenty of differing positions but ultimately, it is almost impossible to argue with people that hold this position as yes, on paper, France has ideals of freedom and equality. To them, to go against this is to undermine and insult the true nature of France, and to a lot (not all) this crisis is imported from a “woke American ideology”. See also: islamogauchiste.
There are a thousand different ways that different people have answered, and I’d first like to state that believing French universalism goes directly against French reality is not new, not original, and even less an import from the USA which the French political elite loves to hate. Anyone who has interested themselves in post-colonial studies will know this. But the issue is they believe that asking these questions goes against “les valeurs républicaines”.
Didier Fassin’s March piece in The Guardian does a fantastic job of showing how the so-called desire to divide from academics is a reaction to their unwillingness to do the effort of asking necessary questions about France’s history.
not purely ideological
Ultimately, Fassin argues my position regarding the crisis of French universalism better than I could, which is why I took the decision to exemplify it and not repeat it. This is because I have found many people who hold islamogauchiste in their lexicon do not want to face that France’s systemic issues are indeed affecting individuals and this is not a “purely ideological issue” but one causing severe fractures in French society.
I’d like to pay particular attention to the figure of Darmanin, who arguably has been one of the best exemplifiers of the crisis “French identity” is undergoing. In my opinion, going back to his fear of “communautarisme” spreading in France, one of the clearest examples of the kind of misunderstanding of French social reality is what the denial of hard truths leads to.
Let me elaborate by taking the problem in reverse and asking, “why is this so-called communautrisme spreading?” I will pay no mind to the minister’s comment on supermarket aisles which is ultimately just a display of gross ignorance to distract from the nature of his true message (à la Trump).
Darmanin’s main issue seems to be that immigrant French communities, or minorities, are staying between them and excluding themselves from French society. Ultimately, his point of view reflects a wilful ignorance prevalent in French society that it is unable to face the fact that, for example, the concept of banlieues is one studied by scholars all over the world as an extension of the desire to keep minorities on the outside.
This is not up for debate. What is up for debate is how we interpret it. Historically it is a fact that the French government is guilty of purposefully arranging the space of the metropolis a way that it kept control over minorities.
For Darmanin to imply minorities in France are excluding themselves is to exempt the French state from carrying out policies that go against its values. And there we have one of the main fractures that French universalism is facing today, because people, who tend to defend it unequivocally, feel the need to make abstraction of uncomfortable realities.
AGAINST ITS VALUES
The main uncomfortable reality being the French state has and is guilty of carrying out certain policies that go against its values. Arguably this stems from the fact by acknowledging a state can do wrong, it would bring down their argument that France has the right to ask its citizens to erase themselves for the sake of equality and freedom.
It is important to note this crisis is arguably most felt by the French minorities. To exemplify, Eric Zemmour’s comments on Hapsatou Sy’s name calling it an “insult to France”.
Here, we have the second issue I would like to put forward as a fracture within French society. To apply its value of equality France has felt the need to ask its minorities to erase what makes them a minority so that they can be “integrated”.
tension of equality
The most extreme view of this is exemplified by Zemmour’s position that the sheer desire for a French and Senegalese woman to have a non-French name is an outright insult. Others will claim to be more moderate and only think that wearing the veil in public spaces should be banned because of la “laïcité” because it promotes “l’égalité”. Again, there are plenty of answers to this, but I will go at it head-on and ask; is it really equality and freedom if individuals must alter themselves to be equal and free?
I always joke about when I first went to London to study, I had a conversation with a rather right-leaning man who asked me “why does France care so much about the veil?” and I did not know what to say. He supported Brexit, FYI.
The question of the veil, of the name, of the erasure of difference ultimately shows that for France has felt the need to erase differences in minorities, to brush over its past (and present) of discrimination and enforce its ideal of equality.
not surprising to anyone
French universalism and what forms the complex web of French identity have tensions that have been brushed off by assimilating minorities, not integrating them.
Ultimately, the crisis that the French political space is undergoing is not surprising to anyone who introduces themself as “French and something else”. Anyone not fully French knows France is particular in its treatment of minorities and undeniably different from the United-States.
Anyone with a minimum of social awareness knows the resentment from ex-colonized minorities is growing and festering on the discourse the French right-wing is uttering. I know a lot of French people, reading these words, will think I am biting the hand that fed me, after all I was rather successfully “integrated” into French society after I was naturalized in 2003. I would like however to leave you with this fact that guided my thoughts: my mother and I had to become French even though my grandfather was Martiniquais.
About the Article
An insightful look at the controversy of confronting French identity in a current light.