It is actually from French that we get the word for its most extreme expression. Chauvinisme, named after zealous Napoleonic soldier, Nicolas Chauvin, means being more patriotic than patriotic. It goes beyond “my country is better than yours” to “my country is the best – at everything.”
English has no equivalent word which is why, as it so often does, it borrowed from the French, removing the final E. It is not often used but was once common in the context of sexism – as in “male chauvinist pig”. However, the arrogance it describes is still going strong. Marine Le Pen was confident that she could harness France’s latent chauvinisme to win last year’s presidential election. On the other side of the Channel, Brexit is fuelled by incessant chauvinist rhetoric: “Britain is a special nation that is more than capable of going it alone; we don’t need telling what to do by the European Union” etc.
Chauvinisme carries negative connotations – few people would readily describe themselves as one – but the concept conceals a useful question.
What’s wrong with loving your country with a passion? If we are to see off excessive nationalism, don’t we need a word for healthy national pride but not one that involves feeling superior to other countries?
It is obvious no country is best at everything. Every country has something to offer the international community and to civilisation. Our aim has to be to rediscover, what that is without going further than that. We could say we need a healthy form of chauvinism to prevent the unhealthy variety from doing all the talking.
France has been somewhat cowed since the demise of that arch-chauvinist de Gaulle and the end of the Trente Glorieuses, the 30 years of prosperity following 1945 during which the French could afford to be smug.
For centuries, Gallic culture was the envy of the world despite the rude awakenings of 1870, 1914 and 1940. Now it has become something of a joke. The French are seen as culturally protectionists, clinging to nostalgia while resisting the very un-French realities of globalisation.
Gone, however, is the time when the Belgians could ask each other as a joke, “How do you make a profit out of a Frenchman?” Answer: “You buy him for what he is worth and sell him for what he thinks he is worth.”
Today, French people are the first to say that their country is not as great as it once was. A key aspect of Emmanuel Macron’s project is to restore a sense of national esteem. Winning the World Cup should have helped but the riots that followed showed just how divided contemporary France is. To be proud of its virtues, a country has to have a shared notion of what they are and why they matter. The symbol of the nation state is not enough; it has to have substance behind it.
Populists in many countries – including Britain – believe the answer to cultural decline is to be unashamedly chauvinistic as if the nations are nothing more than competing brands.
But they should be warned. Nicolas Chauvin, the archetypal solider who could see no wrong in his beloved country, turns out to be a legend rather than a living person. He was invented not for the purposes of propaganda, but as the butt for jokes.
Chauvinisme reminds us that it is good to extol the virtue of one’s own country but not to push it to absurd extremes.