Last time we looked briefly at a particularly Italian issue in the quest for European identity. But what about France? Is such an issue even possible there? After all, Franco-German rapprochement is the cornerstone of L’Union européenne, and if any country has been central in defining what it means to be European, it’s been France. France, after all, can be considered as having given birth to modern Europe, or at least to the idea of modern Europe, after the 1789 Revolution with its cries of “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood.” It’s had the firmest notions of itself as a country, and those are notions that have been challenged in the last few decades as immigration recasts the entire notion — potentially — of what it means to be French.
And so, France is undergoing a national debate: what does it mean to be French? What is the proper place and significance of its national symbols? Where do immigrants fit into this matrix, of a people that have long been defined more by ethnicity than anything else?
It’s a question, like the religion issue I wrote about a couple of days ago, that has vexed us here in the United States as well. Like in France, serious debate has taken place about what the proper proficiency in English, for example, should be before someone is admitted into this country, to what extent assimilation is desirable and necessary, if this is a process the government should help along or hinder. How, people wonder here, can immigrants ever be a part of the United States if they won’t learn the goddamn language?
That is, of course, ultimately the same question the French are dealing with, the meaning of American-ness, of the intangible parts that define a community, and how membership should be restricted, if at all. Some want to turn everyone away, others want to welcome all comers. It really all sounds startling familiar:
The discussions are to take place during hundreds of locally organized town-hall meetings involving education, union and cultural officials and ordinary people concerned about the state of French identity. 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.”
Substitute “The Marseillaise” with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Le Pen” with “Limbaugh,” and “l’Humanité” with “The New York Times” and its pretty much the same thing. And in France as well as the United States, none of these questions are easily answered. For all its multi-ethnic origins, the United States considers itself as much a nation-state as any other country. We speak of our national culture, our national history, our national identity, and even of, well, our nation, which means our common birth. The struggle to make sense of that in the midst of the early twenty-first century is necessarily difficult. We live in a time of diffusion.
Communities are real and vital things. God made us for community. They have ontological purpose, and John Paul even proposed they may have a particular eschatology to them as well, a part of Memory and Identity I won’t begin to pretend to understand. But communities are both defined by us and themselves define us, a give-and-take process in which the interaction of individuals gives rise to something so contradictory but still in its essentials good: the community from which people derive their self-identification, find purpose in the world, opportunities to love and to serve and to give, a place for the ego to be displaced, if just for a time.
When the community is something as primal as your country, though, the issues seem to get much larger. Yeah, I’m a Yankees fan. I’m a comic book fan. I’m a Trekkie. But none of those are as fundamentally defining as American. So a challenge to what makes up American-ness stirs no small amount of passion. I daresay the only thing that can bridge the gap between the self-definition of French or American and the striving of others to join that community is in recognizing that the community isn’t indelible, isn’t eternal, and in the end has less weight for us than the call to love our neighbors and serve the widow and orphan.
If that seemed like a pat ending, it’s because I have to get ready for work right now.