Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

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[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] What does it mean to be French?

Back in November, I noted that the Wikipedia article on the French people seems to be incorrect in certain ways, going on to trigger a lively controversy. As it happens, the controversy has grown sharply of late, with people who note the continuing existence of ethnic pluralism in metropolitan France arguing with people who point out the constructed nature of the French nation-state, both of these arguing against people with ahistorical arguments like that listed below.

Se c'è qualcosa di veramente vomitevole al mondo è vedere un popolo la cui identità è ben definita(sostanzialmente i Francesi sono una miscela di Celti e Romani) farsi beffe dei propri antenati disonorandone lo stesso sangue. Dire che la Nazione Francese è una mandria informe di bastardi è un insulto verso coloro che sono morti per difenderne il suolo durante i millenni. Dire che la Francia è una mistura di tutte le razze europee e che 22 milioni di francesi discendono da immigrati(specialmente nordafricani) è un affronto verso ogni vero francese. Chi scrive queste menzogne è un ipocrita cui il concetto di nazione è estraneo quanto lo è quello di democrazia per un mussulmano, visto che si vanta tanto di avere 10 MILIONI di maghrebini sul suolo della SUA PATRIA. Comunque la differenza tra un Italiano ed un Francese od un Belga è minima, per cui non mi sembra il caso di ditinguere tanto nettamente popoli e genti che possiedono affinità di sangue, lingua, cultura e religione(in fondo siamo tutti Europei).Cio' che bisogna evitare è il cadere nelle banalità e nelle sconcerie che cosi' spesso avvengono nel nostro continente, alimentate da un sentimento di autodistruzione che permea l'Europa intera e ne mina le basi piu' intime.(Spero che qualcuno capisca cio' che ho scritto, anche se ne dubito...).

The Altavista translation starts off as this: "If something truly vomitevole to the world is it is to see people whose identity is very definita(sostanzialmente the French is one mixture of Celti and Romani) makes pranks of the own ancestors disonorandone the same blood. To say that the French Nation is a shapeless herd of bastards is an insult towards those who is died in order to defend of the ground during the millenia." It goes downhill from there--not the translation, but rather the analystic value of the content.

avva was quite right to point out in the comments that studying French ethnicity isn't a problem. My problem with the article that triggered this debate is that it oversimplified things significantly. Three particular areas come to mind.

1. It doesn't account well for 'indigenous' ethnic minorities within France. If French history had taken a different route, such regional populations as Savoyards, Corsicans, Basques, Bretons, and Alsatians might well have gone on to join different political and language communities, whether separate nation-states or as adjunct provinces of other nation-states. I'm not sure whether speakers of the different langues d'oc ever came to identify themselves as belonging to an ethnic group separate from that of the French. Are these people French, or do they belong to separate ethnic groups?

2. It doesn't account well for immigrant minorities. As Gerard Noiriel made clear in his The French Melting Pot, France is as much of a society of mass immigration as the United States with one French citizen in four as of the mid-1980s having a foreign-born grandparent. Belgians, Italians, Spanish, Poles, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Portuguese, Arabs and Berbers from the Maghreb, Chinese, Indochinese--Republican France has a diverse population. As in practically every country, immigrants lay at the outside of national life at first, but in France perhaps more than most other countries, participation in public life conferred legitimacy and near-indigeneity on immigrants, while intermarriage has always been high. Where do people descended from late 19th century Flemish immigrants to Lille, early 20th century Italian immigrants to Provence, or late 20th century Martiniquais immigrants to Bordeaux fit in?

3. It doesn't account for other Francophone populations. Francophone Swiss identify strongly with their country, accurately pointing to the stable western frontier of Switzerland and its dependencies from the Middle Ages on. Things are different in Belgium, where despite efforts to promote the Walloon language, the one-third of Walloons who would apparently like their region to be integrated with France if the Belgian state fell apart suggest that Walloon ethnic identity isn't particularly strong. Do Québécois, Acadiens, and other peoples descended from New France identify themselves as ethnically French, not simply as descending from French and other settlers but as sharing the same ethnicity as the denizens of the Hexagon? I feel confident in saying no. Since the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, North American Québec has gone on to have a historical experience quite separate from that of European France, such that modern Québécois no longer identify themselves as French in anything but language and ancestry and, perhaps, nostalgic sentiment. This conclusion holds all the more strongly for other Francophone populations, whether one is talking about first-language speakers of French in the départements d'outremer or elsewhere in the Maghreb, or second-language speakers of French in the wider francophonie.

What does it mean to be French? Last year, Pearsall Helms argued that though there isn't such an animal as an "ethnic American," there are groups of individuals united by shared cultures which might in other circumstances be considered distinct ethnic groups, some of these groups being closer to ill-articulated American norms than others. I suspect that the same sort of phenomenon exists in France, with (say) Provençals and Lillois being considered just as French as anyone in Ile-de-France, those few Bretons and Corsicans who insist on still using their native languages being regarded as limited regional exceptions, and the different immigrant groups in different relationships. Ethnicity in American and French contexts is a sensitive question dealing directly with the structure of the nation and its political/social manifestations. It's worthwhile to compare Chinese sensitivity over spoken Chinese language, or perhaps more appropriately, languages.

And the article? It's worth noting that the old article has been massively revised, perhaps as a prelude to its assimilation in other articles, perhaps not. One change that seems likely to remain is the deletion of the numbers of French ethnics living in France. That sort of talk, besides encouraging potentially dangerous minds, is just wrong.
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