As France becomes increasingly multicultural, reflections on how to work effectively as a nation are of increasing importance to intellectual thought, often challenging traditional notions of having ‘roots’ or an ‘ancestral heritage’.
Édouard Glissant (1928–2011) reformulated the ideas of philosopher Gilles Deleuze and political activist Félix Guattari to argue that France shouldn’t talk about having ‘roots’. This implies one unique ancestral heritage, a fixed hierarchy that excludes people of other ethnicities from being included in the French nation. He prefers the image of rhizomes (what potatoes grow on) because this highlights a pride at being multicultural, since a rhizome plant has lots of roots all working together, not just one primary vertical root.
Anne-Marie Thiesse said in La Création des identités nationales (1999) that it was just a handful of men in the 18th century who invented the idea of a nation. This was part of their attempts to discredit the modernity that came with the Industrial Revolution. Yet while the concept of national identity is merely ‘fiction’, she argues, it is one that we need to believe in – or else, like a human body, our head will be at war with our heart.
Only last year, Le Monde journalist Jean-Baptiste de Montvalon compared the French national identity to a ‘construction site’, stressing its constant state of renewal. He says that, while many people would like to stabilise the notion, a national identity ‘cannot be engraved in marble, evolving constantly over the ages in relation to the powers in place’.
Édouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau developed an interesting image in Quand les murs tombent when they wrote, ‘la nation n’est plus un château fort’ (meaning ‘our nation was once a fortified castle, but is no more’). They stress the need for open minds and hearts in the construction of a collective identity, rather than continuing with a fortified-castle mentality.
French historian Ernest Renan (1823–1892) made a famous statement in his 1882 lecture ‘What is a Nation’ about the spiritual duties that underpin the politics of a nation. He argued that two things constitute its soul or spiritual principle: one that lies in the past, and one that lies in the present. To be a good nation is to negotiate fairly between a ‘rich legacy of memories’ and the ‘present-day consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received’.
The French Republican Pact is based on the values of freedom, equality, and fraternity, which constitute the motto of the Republic. In particular, these republican values must apply to all citizens uniformly, and are intended to be adopted by all humans. This makes the idea of a nation more about freedom in political terms, rather than about ethnicity or race of the community.
Philarète Chasles, following in the footsteps of Renan, wrote in Le mystère de l’identité nationale (2009) that belonging to a national French identity has nothing to do with one’s blood or race. Rather, it resides within the choices people make, from abiding by common laws to respecting traditions and shared values.