National Identity


You may or may not know that the French government has launched a debate about “National Identity” in this country. Unfortnately this has turned into a fiasco with numerous “linguistic” blunders from the right and lots of ingenous comments from the left.

First the debate has been marred by the Swiss vote against the building of minarets and the issue seems to have focused mainly on the Muslim inhabitants of France. As someone who teaches to a vast majority of students whose ancestors were all French I can testify that their “national identity” isn’t always clear and inborn.

Then it worries me that the people who make themselves heard in this debate can only see things in terms of black and white. France as a whole isn’t turning into an Islamic nation, neither should we be naive about what is taking place in some areas of France where Islamic groups which do not share the values of the Western world are free to prosper.

One of the problems with France and its treatment of religion is not so much that it is a secular country where “church and state” are totally separate but that this has led most French people to be completely ignorant about religion.

As a result any religious sign is seen as a proof that you are at best an obscurantist at worst a fanatic, whatever your religion. As they are unable to interpret these signs French people either worry about them (mostly people on the right) or dicard them as part of an exotic heritage that should be preserved (people on the left). I agree that I am oversimplifying here but this is for the sake of clarity.

Identity is not only inherited, it is mostly taught. France has a strong history, filled with strong historical figures. It has integrated lots of different people over the centuries and is certainly still capable of doing so. The solution is certainly not to teach less history but rather more and also to have leaders who are able to identify what is acceptable or not in a religious expression of one’s faith.

I welcome any comment- especially if you disagree – and would love to read what you think about what constitutes one’s national identity and how yours was forged.