It has now been a year and a half since I moved to France. I am not going to bore you with all the domestic challenges the move caused me, do not worry, but I need to mention this since I have only just begun to explore life in France. This post about France will therefore be rather impressionistic. Yet I am sure our esteemed guest poster Emmanuel, and hopefully our French readers, will chime in with corrections, elaborations and the like. I also need to mention that I live in the countryside of Brittany, which means there is some distance between me and whatever happens in Paris and the rest of France.
The first thing I noticed about France is that my day-to-day life has not changed much compared to my extended stay in Belgium. People basically talk about the same things: life is expensive, the weather is relatively mild for the time of the year, the bathroom needs painting, sports, etc. And naturally there has been some cultural talk, since I am a new kid on the block with a heavy foreign accent, mostly about culinary and linguistic differences. Every now and then the conversation turns to politics and society. Rarely so, but still.
Again, there are many similarities between France and the other countries I know, Belgium and The Netherlands. People worry about employment, notably the lack thereof, and about how the euro made life more expensive. There seems to be a general distrust of politicians and most people seem to be somewhat indifferent to what happens on the political scene, unless there is some big thing like the EU referendum on the constitutional treaty or national elections or an international crisis like the war in Iraq. The EU and immigration continue to be hot topics.
The differences are, as usual, underneath the surface and extremely hard to extricate. As a Dutchman it took me fifteen odd years to even begin to understand the Flemish soul and I do not expect it to be different here in France. I shall therefore limit myself to what struck me most after having lived in France for eighteen months now: I need to come to terms with living in a large country â€“ at least by European standards â€“ that defined a considerable part of continental Western European history and culture.
Austerlitzâ€¦ tous les Ã©coliers de France connaissent le nom dâ€™une des plus belles victoires franÃ§aises ! La commÃ©moration de cette victoire me paraÃ®t en tout cas autrement plus pertinente que dâ€™envoyer notre porte-avion Charles-de-Gaulleâ€¦ en Angleterre pour la cÃ©lÃ©bration de Trafalgar !! Au moment oÃ¹ on sâ€™Ã©tend, Ã nâ€™en plus pouvoir, sur le dÃ©clin de la France, quel joli paradoxe franÃ§ais que de commÃ©morer nos dÃ©faites et pas nos victoires ! L’auto flagellation a ses limites, les critiques aussi.
The bold text reads : In any case, the commemoration of this victory seems much more pertinent to me than sending our aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulleâ€¦ to England to celebrate Trafalgar!!
Napoleon Bonaparte is still making waves. Claude Ribbe, historian and author of Le Crime de NapolÃ©on or Napoleonâ€™s Crime, threw some more oil on the fire by comparing Napoleon to Hitler, including in his description acts of genocide by means of gassing, slavery and death squads. And the attack on the glorious past of the French empire continued with the passing of a much criticised law on February 23rd 2005, the so-called loi relative Ã la reconnaissance de la nation et la contribution nationale en faveur des FranÃ§ais rapatriÃ©s, which says, among other things, that school text books should pay more attention to the positive influences of colonialism. The main purpose of the law, if I read it correctly, was to recognize the suffering and the sacrifices made by officials in service of the French empire, notably the harkis and indigenous administrators in colonial Algeria.
Yet the law met with fierce resistance from historians arguing that history should not be dictated by law and that this particular law could lead to revisionist propaganda. Proponents of the law mention the lack of balance in current teaching of the French colonial past. â€œIt was not all badâ€, they say. Critics of the law like historian Pascal Blanchard, on the other hand, say there are many more bad things still left unexposed.
Of course France is not the only country struggling with its colonial past. I only need to mention my native country The Netherlands and my former host country Belgium and their colonial histories in Indonesia and The Congo respectively.
But neither the Dutch nor the Belgians are now openly defending the positive sides, should there be any, of their colonial pasts in order to salvage the idea of la grandeur de la patrie, as seems to be the case in some French quarters. The political programme of the French Front National states explicitly Nous nâ€™avons quâ€™une politique : la grandeur du Pays or Â« We have but one policy : the greatness of our Country Â». As the recent debates in France about the February 23rd law and the commemoration of Austerlitz indicate this concept of greatness or grandeur goes beyond building a prosperous country.
It seems that, in some French minds, there is a psychological need for glory and lustre in order to be able to compete with the power of 21st century style empires like the USA and up-and-coming China. France, like so many European countries, is searching for, or trying to maintain, an identity of itself in a world where national identities are seemingly being eroded by globalization and immigration. The â€˜foreignâ€™ influence on the French national psyche exerted by immigrants, notably Muslims, was demonstrated by the debates this year about the 100th anniversary of la LaÃ¯citÃ©, the separation of state and Church, and, tangentially, by the riots in the banlieues.
Again, this search for, or even the affirmation of, a national identity is not an exclusively French issue. But for me, coming from a small country myself, the concept of grandeur is something new. I am now living in a former empire…
But maybe my foreign eyes and mind are deceiving me. In any case, I am sure this post should provide plenty of people with an opportunity to either discuss, rant or flame. Bonnes fÃªtes Ã toutes et Ã tous!
UPDATE: Today, Wednesday January 4th 2006, Chirac spoke in favour of rewriting the February 23rd law saying that “the current law is dividing the French people, it needs to be rewritten” and “it is not the law’s domain to write history”. As to the matter of slavery, Chirac declared his intention to install une journÃ©e de la mÃ©moire or ‘memory day’.
He also offered an explanation of the word ‘grandeur’: “The grandeur of France is tolerance and respect towards everyone.” And he also stated: “We can be proud of our history, marked by so much success, so much grandeur, so much light. Yet it is also because we are at peace with our history that we can acknowledge its shadowy areas and its challenges.”