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The enduring myth of France, despite dark times

Citing immigration and terror attacks in his failed bid to run in the presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy asked: ‘What is French identity?’Here, author and Académie Française member JEAN-MARIE ROUART looks at France’s history and says the attacks strengthened the sense of national identity

To the French, France remains a legend, a myth, a culture. Indeed, the way they see themselves is extremely surprising.

Relentless rehashing of the darkest moments in French history has left them sceptical, depressed, disaffected, paralysed by relativism [the idea that truth, knowledge, and morality are not absolute, but exist only in relation to the culture that gave them birth] and violently self-flagellating.

Despite all this, their pride in being French is unaffected, although for the last 50 years they have worn a hair shirt rather than kid gloves when reviewing the pivotal events of the contemporary era.

The first of these is Occupied France and Vichy, which was pushed into the background by the heroism of De Gaulle: a narrative that was adopted by all his successors until Chirac [who recognised France’s guilt over the treatment of the Jews].

In London, French collaboration with the Nazis was kept well-hidden. American historians such as Robert Paxton, and many of his French counterparts, did shed some light on it but although mistakes and crimes were recognised the national narrative would not go as far as renouncing its faith in De Gaulle.

Even the recognition of the abuses committed both under colonisation and during decolonisation, such as the tragedy of the Harkis [the Muslim Algerian soldiers who fought for France in the Algerian War and were massacred after De Gaulle refused them asylum at the end of the war], did not damage French pride in belonging to a ‘free country and defender of human rights’.

However, we must distinguish between the France of the Parisian intellectual, which is politically engaged and capable of critical thought, and provincial, populist France, which identifies more with heroic deeds, heroes, and France as a civilising influence.

The latter believes that all those who sacrificed their lives for France, such as the young men killed at Mont-Valérien [prison outside Paris, where French hostages were executed by the Nazis], died for a good cause, and that their martyrdom paid for the many crimes committed by France during this dark time.

The barbaric challenge launched by Daesh/Isis against France as a model of civilisation may have had the opposite of the desired effect: the terrorist attacks seem to have awakened the people’s sense of a threat to their privileged cultural identity, which is exactly what Isis wanted to destroy.

Over the last few years, French mentality has evolved curiously: from the confusion created by Nicolas Sarkozy when he naively asked what national identity meant – which seemed jingoistic and old-fashioned at the time – towards embracing the privileges of this identity: the French language and history.

First and foremost, the French like the history of their country because it demonstrates the complex, ambiguous and mysterious nature of their people.

By examining history, everything can be justified: cynicism with [Cardinal] Richelieu, opportunism with [diplomat] Talleyrand, both excess and budgetary balance with Henri IV, the consecration of merit and military legend with Napoleon, and political Jansenism [Catholic heretic religious thought emphasising hyper-moralism] with the soldier- monk De Gaulle.

Given that the favoured periods of history in France are the revolution and the era of Vercingetorix [Averni tribe chieftain], clearly the French approach is based more on emotion than historical judgment. The French love their history with a passion, but do they really know it, and are they really willing to examine its subtleties?

It is curious that more importance is given to Vercingetorix, whose defeat was eventually positive since France was born out of Roman colonisation, than to Clovis [the first king to unite the Frankish tribes], the country’s true founder. Clovis’s role, particularly in choosing Christianity over Arianism [which said Jesus was more than man, but less than God], is often neglected.

The French prefer to dress up their history in more glamorous terms, and to them today’s politics can seem a little too measured and pedestrian, shaped as it is by economic principles and social reality; too disconnected from history, from that great national narrative through which the French dream of transcending their everyday trials and tribulations.

And what of Europe? The French have trouble taking the plunge, and it has to be said that Europe is not very likeable: as a partner it is rigorous and inflexible, while on the core issues it is overly liberal and powerless.
Therefore, it does not really embody a project – even less so an ideal.

It is almost impossible for 27 member states, each with internal divisions, to make up a heterogeneous group, and under these conditions it is difficult to inspire a passionate response.

So, let’s stay French! France may no longer inspire passion, but she remains a myth, a great power and culture, and an impressive incubator of Nobel Prize-winners – scholars who certainly did not find their degrees down the back of the sofa, like our own little darlings.

Yet here also is an example of the great French mystery: how the social chasm created by a cowardly and unpopular political class can be bridged by France’s meritocracy, and its great respect for excellence.

This article first appeared in French in Paris Match. Translation for Connexion by Jessica Smith.
©Jean-Marie Rouart

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