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French dressing in the salad bowl

In 1946, Charles de Gaulle observed, “Everything is connected in the misfortunes of a nation...We have to bring about, despite great di...

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
December 7, 2005

In 1946, Charles de Gaulle observed, “Everything is connected in the misfortunes of a nation…We have to bring about, despite great difficulties, a drastic reconstruction that will make it possible for each man and woman to lead a life of greater ease, security and happiness…”

France epitomises the classic European idea of the ‘nation’. It imagines itself as a nation based on the fundamental homogeneity of the French people, bound together by a common language and culture, underpinned by a common territory. It is this homogenous idea of the nation that is being challenged by the largely immigrant poor population settled on the outskirts of Paris. The question that Charles De Gaulle would have had to confront today is whether his idea of rebuilding the nation applies equally to its non-white, non-Christian population.

Beneath the now hegemonic notion of the homogenous nation, France had an older, much older, inspiration stemming from the defining ideas of the French revolution. This set of ideas lie at the core of modern democracies and modern developed societies. Some of these ideas are familiar to us as those of Liberty, Equality and Secularism.

The idea of development—a minimum standard of living—was added to these foundational ideas such that human life would no longer be nasty, brutish and short. While the idea of development caught the imagination of America and was from there spread to the post-World War II Third World, for Europe, especially France, it is really the Enlightenment values centred around humanism that have remained sacrosanct. These retained pride of place, with France and Europe sniffing at the lack of integration of Blacks in America, and racism and violent ethnic conflicts elsewhere in the world. The French have held doggedly to their stance on the head dress issue, citing principles of equal citizenship and secularism.

The message is that the nation will accommodate its diverse populations on universal principles. The French Revolution, followed closely by the student revolt of 1968, is a treasured ‘cultural possession’; on a par with many other zealously guarded cultural products, such as wine, fashion and art, which give the French a sense of great cultural superiority. The French celebrate ‘Bastille Day’ as their equivalent of Independence Day, inscribing the French Revolution into their very identity. It is this cultural possession, as well as the legacy of various other liberal social movements, that is seen as being threatened in the recent ‘riots’ in the suburbs of Paris. The image of a well-integrated, fair nation, in which the idea of the equality of the ‘citizen’ holds centre stage, has fallen apart.

While earlier social revolutions in France had ‘real’ French citizens as heroes, the people at the centre of this ‘proletarian’ revolution (will it be seen as one, posthumously?) are not quite the real French. How then can the French nation incorporate them into its history of popular social revolutions, workers and students revolts? Will these riots by poor, non-white, non-Christian immigrant citizens fire the imagination of the French intelligentsia, artists and filmmakers, as other earlier events in French history have? Can the new proletariat, which is mostly made up of immigrants, be the source of renewal of the Republic? Will the plans announced a few days ago to address the discontent of suburban youngsters— through a combination of better education, equal opportunities and the severe punishment of discriminatory acts—prove effective? If these riots are a cry against racial segregation and economic discrimination, how is the French nation going to absorb them into its discourse of equality of all, irrespective of race, religion, colour, ethnicity and economic status?

Immigrants are set to become a reality in most European countries if these countries wish to survive in a competitive global economy. Till the late eighties, Europe managed a stable existence free of the need to accommodate ‘outsiders’ within its borders. However, the carefully cultivated image of homogenous European nations began to fall apart with the troubles in Eastern Europe and the reawakening of ethnicities earlier hidden from view. It is now the turn of Western European countries like France and Germany to come to terms with the heterogeneity presented to them by immigrant populations, some of them reminders of their own colonial pasts, and others imported as ‘guest workers’ to fill jobs that locals do not wish to do.

Yet all hope is not lost. The liberal, secular forces in France have to regroup if they are to save the ideals of the French nation. It is one such voice, that of Jean-Marie Bockel, mayor of Mullhouse in the north-east, who has called for a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the districts. It is such a rebuilding together with openness to the redefinition of the ‘nation’ that may allow France to renew its pact with its liberal values.

The writer is associate professor, IIT, Delhi

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