C’est typique. Quand les choses vas pas bien, voila que les diregeants veut qu’on change le sujet. It’s typical: When things aren’t going well, political leaders try to change the subject. And too often, this amounts to trying to re-direct our attention from themselves to ‘them’ — the foreigner. Voila que three major figures from the governing UMP party find themselves either sentenced to prison (Charles Pasqua, senator and former interior minister), awaiting a verdict (former prime minister Dominique Villepin) or soon to be tried (former president Jacques Chirac) — and just four months before regional elections in which the UMP would like to take at least some of the regions (20 of 22 of which are currently controlled by the Socialists) — and President Sarkozy… tries to change the subject. And the national, government-run media more or less complies, notwithstanding a few commentators who question his motives. Of course, we have learned some things since 1940, so we no longer say, “Look at them, they’re different” (well, except in the case of the bourka), but frame the question as “What does it mean to be French?” or “Identité national,” the implication being that some of us foreigners identify more with the countries we came from than the one that — graciously, it needs to be said — has welcomed us.
I’m not against valuing French traditions and values — indeed they are the main reason I’m here. Even the main reason I stay here. And I’m not just talking about the French cultural icons in film, music, literature and art many of whom I’ve worshipped all my life, but basic political, social, and moral values and practices.
Just to give you one example: In the last major elections here, for the European Parliament, 26 parties contested for the French vote. 26! And they all had more or less equal access to the public. For each election, metal panels go up before schools and other public places, each of which features a poster from from a party. So in the European Parliamentary elections, the anti-Zionist party was placed on equal footing with the UMP. Olivier Besancenot, leader of the New Anti-capitalist Party, is regularly included in televised debates. (It’s no accident that in the last presidential election, disputed among 11 parties — 11 parties! — Besancenot got 5 percent of the vote. In the U.S., by contrast, the two main parties, and their allies in the corporate controlled media, do everything they can to exclude other parties from the debate. Some television networks even exclude too liberal Democratic candidates from presidential and senatorial debates. So in contrast to Besancenot, U.S. presidential candidate Ralph Nader — hardly a radical by even U.S. standards — got 1 percent after effectively being blocked from the national corporate-controlled media.
So I absolutely agree that those who come here should prize French tradition, language, culture, lifestyle, and values. I don’t even disagree that a reasoned debate on what it means to be French, and to live in France, and French values, would be useful. That’s not the question. I return to motive, timing, and historical context. When political leaders start talking about national identity — a conversation a subset of which is usually ‘they’re not like us’ — during a time when things aren’t going well, we need to be alarmed. And in France, there’s an additional particularity: I would argue that a knowledge of French history includes awareness of the chapter of that history in which the Vichy government, in the name of France, did what no other occupied country did in not just allowing the Germans to round up Jews and deport them to the death camp, but in many times taking the initiative in IDENTIFYING who was Jewish and having the French police do the rounding up. What made this easier for them to do was the idea that, “Well, they’re not French anyway. They are the other. They act different. They look different.”
This past Saturday in Perigueux, the highlight of the second Salon régional Memoire Résistance et Deportation was a projection and debate, featuring the live participation of Holocaust survivor Marie-José Chambart de Lauwe, who was deported to Ravensbruck, and the film “La deportation des Femmes.” Most of the stories were horrible: Chambart de Lauwe recalled that sometimes new arrivals were marched directly from the train to the gas chambers, without any ‘selection,’ and that each morning, the women had to race from their sleeping quarters outside the camp to the gates of the camp. Any that fell were bludgeoned to death immediately. Newborns were simply thrown against the wall until they were dead. But at least one of the stories was inspirational — and, in the current context, instructive. One of the markers of national identity suggested by some has been the obligatory daily singing of the Marseillaise in schools. In the film shown Saturday, one of the deported women recalled that when her group arrived at Auschwitz — after, no doubt, being localised by French Vichy authorities and rounded up by French policemen, many of whom no doubt justified their actions because ‘they’re not French, anyway’ — as they were entering the camp the women spontaneously broke out in the Marseillaise. France had sent them to their deaths, but they still sang for France — and as Frenchwomen.