Friday, November 6, 2009

Friday liberty blogging - I'm French and that's something

It might be an unknown fact to my non-French readers, the French government is currently flooding the media with questions about the French identity. What is it to be French?

They also use the fuss to cover up their shameless unprincipled immigration practices, but that won't be the subject of the present bill.

The subject is the French identity, I would like to elaborate about it, because I'm one of the lucky ones down here who have spare time and spare thoughts to ask such questions and try to answer them. When my friend Thierry Kakouridis wrote an article about the matter (FR), I thought I had to reply to it.


France is a melting-pot of people with various views and cultural heritage. It is not one. For instance, several values are deeply written in the culture of my natal region that are not always shared in other places in France:
  • Anti-clericalism: People can believe whatever they want as long as it does not encroach upon my life and my political freedom. If it does, they, not I, have to withdraw.
  • Ability to live on one's own: You will be well-considered if you don't require help. You'll still be welcome if you do require help, but you won't be thought of so highly.
  • Giving one's word: Something said is just as good as something signed in black and white on paper.
And I did inherit these values from my living there for twenty years. Yet, as I said, these are not prominent values everywhere in France. So which should be the values of the French? First of all, I think there is the freedom of ideas. Foreigners are often surprised at the way the French take the liberty to interpret non-negotiable things. Whether it be the law, the religion or the management theories, the French often only take what they want from it. And if you ask them why, they always have a good (yeah, or bad) explanation for it.

This is one the basic freedoms that people from occidental democratic countries enjoy. And that's a freedom that can only be removed from you if you don't use it enough.

For this freedom to be within reach of a humble citizen, it requires:
  • A culture that values culture above wealth,
  • A culture that values thinking above believing,
  • And the associated society that preserves and enriches this culture.
I think other freedoms are less important to the French. We cannot be French without allowing ourselves to think freely about things of interest.

We also use to have equality and fraternity in our national motto. This to me relates to two other main components of the French conscience:
  • The hatred of ubris. Not all the French believe in a God up-there but all the French agree that there is no God down-here. The excess of pride that leads to think of oneself as a God and to behave as such is un-French. It is considered a disease that can affect both individuals and nations.
    For instance, the French renounced the death penalty. We mostly consider that a nation has no divine right to claim lives.
    This it, to my mind, the meaning of the equality word in out motto: none of us is a God.
  • The meritocracy. While we enjoy the equality of people in rights and dignity, we clearly know that we are different and of different skills. And none of us can pretend to be good at everything. Yet, we believe in the need to live and work together. And this means that we have to know and reward the merits of each. And this goes, not through money but through respect and consideration from others.
    This is precisely why the French are outraged at the idea of a film maker being treated as a usual burglar, or at the idea of their previous president being thrown in prison.
    Sure, the law is equal for all, but in conjunction with the fact that all the French choose by themselves which laws to apply and which not, meritocracy is commonplace in France. You get "powers" from being known for your past achievements. In exchange for these powers, you have to continue to serve well the nation. We know that we are not working against each other, rather for each other.
    That is, to my mind, the meaning of the fraternity word in our motto.
To answer Thierry's underlying questions:
  • Yes, one is first of all what he/she wants to be. And most of the French want to be French rather than regional or European or other. And that's precisely why there is such a fuss about national identity right now: the French do feel that their identity is at risk. (To my mind that's more because of the current government than because of the immigrants. And some people are thinking the wrong way, because of fear or ignorance. That part is indeed a French failure.)
  • There could be some confusion about Theodore Roosevelt's words. It could be misinterpreted as a call for "cultural purity". It's not. It's a call for everyone to adhere fully to the identity. And as such, the American president's words match my feeling about the French integration style. You can be more than French, but you cannot be half-French.
    There is no room for hyphenated Frenchism, reduced Frenchism, but there is plenty of room for people to bring in additional cultures from whatever source nationality.