Home > Immigration and Asylum, Immigration and the Politics of Belonging Blog Carnival > Eoin Daly: National Belonging – The View From France

Eoin Daly: National Belonging – The View From France

This is Eoin Daly’s second guest post for HRinI. You can read more about Eoin on the Guest Contributors’ page.

logoThe French Minister for Immigration and National Identity, Eric Besson, has launched a “great debate” on national identity, continuing an important theme of the Sarkozy presidency. Discussions will take place at town hall-style meetings, open to the public, over the coming months, with the views expressed to be collated in a subsequent report. It has aroused opposition and scepticism in at least a section of the political and intellectual Left, which sees it, with some justification, as a cynical move to appropriate the anti-immigration terrain of the National Front. In this blog post, I briefly consider the scope and likely tenor of the “great debate” in the light of the related traditions of republicanism and universalism in France’s public culture and history of ideas. In particular, I wish to touch upon the question of whether the troubling conflation of the debate on national identity with the immigration question is such as to jeopardise the possibility, for universalist republicanism, of openness to a plurality of ways of life, and of securing the social and political bond upon exclusively political ideals rather than pre-political commonalities.

To focus this discussion, it must first be pointed out that there is nothing surprising or extraordinary, per se, in the fact itself of discussion of the values or ideas defining a particular political society. To object to the very idea of such a discussion is absurd unless one objects to the idea of a state itself, and Francois Fillon, the Prime Minister, is not wrong to point out that if immigrants are to be asked to integrate into a French society or republic, it should be established into what it is, more specifically, they are being asked to integrate. Then, it is not the idea, in itself, that French values are to be discussed, but the type or order of “values” which the discussion will encompass, which must be scrutinised.

The revolutionary and republican tradition may be characterised in terms of its indifference to, or abstraction from, the identities and origins of citizens, religious, cultural or otherwise. This 18th century universalism is notably expressed in Tonnerre’s insistence:

“il faut tout refuser aux juifs comme nation: il faut tout accorder aux juifs comme individus; il faut qu’ils soient individuellement citoyens” (“the Jews must be refused everything as a nation but granted everything as individuals, they must be individual citizens”).

This tradition is fiercely defended today in the re-affirmation of the secularist idea of laïcité, as the dissociation of citizenship and religion, and in the broad resistance to normative multiculturalism across the political spectrum (curiously, however, it is the centre-right Sarkozy who has been most receptive to the ideas of an “open” secularism, to the Anglo-American terminologies of diversity and difference, to the possibility of affirmative action and the now-jettisoned idea of amending the 1905 law of Church-State separation in order to permit the state funding of moderate Islamic clerics.) This tradition is also, however, of course abusively directed towards the pernicious discourse of social cohesion, expressing the aim – communitiarian rather than republican in scope – of specifying shared characteristics and personal identities upon which a public identity can be constructed.In this way, national values have spilled over from the political to the pre-political, the spectre then being that citizenship and political society may become defined along the lines of such pre-political commonalities or alikeness between persons, historically resisted in French public philosophy – rather than upon the political values of liberty, equality and fraternity, more open to the ends and ways of life to which citizenship may be exercised.

This is the spectre of selective identity politics – the confusion of national identity with the deep personal commitments or attachments which purport to unify the great majority of citizens, with the corresponding exclusion of competing identity-based claims, where these threaten the social cohesion that is constructed upon the pre-political commonalities. As Pierre Kahn suggests, we see here the strange thinness of the distinction between authoritarian “neo-Republicans” and the anti-Rawlsian communitarians, both seeking to cement the political and social bond upon a certain, purportedly shared conception of the good life. The spectre of a re-formulated French national identity is not only the loss of the universalist promise of a citizenship dissociated from any organic or involuntary link of persons to communities – with the political bond based on shared conceptions of behaviour and the good life, or ties of sentiment – but also that the identity-sensitive citizenship which replaces it will be a majoritarian one, which excludes alternative communitarian claims. As Olivia Bui-Xuan notes in her excellent book, Le Droit Public Français Entre Universalisme et Différencialisme (Paris : Economica, 2004), there is a strand in the republican-universalist tradition which holds that the State may recognise “open” categories of difference, which respect differential treatment between categories of individuals as a function of solidarity and social needs – and merely precludes those “closed” categories based on the contingencies of birth or origin.

It is possible that the debate on national identity will land upon a banal re-statement of the republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity, with an undoubted outpouring of sentiment and fear, both bruising and futile, along the way. However, what it troubling is the broad assimilation of the question of that of national identity and immigration. As has reasonably been pointed out in the Guardian the most consciously “separatist” or “segregated” communities in France are not Muslims or any ethnic group, but those compounds of the wealthy, the “bourgeois ghetto” of the well-heeled suburbs. It is unfortunate that the republican values of solidarity and fraternity in particular should not be brought outside the navel-gazing realm of identity and directed instead at France’s significant social and economic inequalities.

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  1. Gerard
    November 17, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Is this not just harking back to D. P. Moran’s Irish Ireland nonsense from the start of the last century? Surely, we’re better to paper over the cracks that permiate our society, and which inevitably permiate any modern complex society, differences between rich and poor, private sector and public sector? To that extent, I would argue that asylum law and policy is but a reflection of a broader theme in society. The idea that these social wounds can be heeled, in some cathartic coming together of all interests, in some new commitjment, smacks of fascism or eutopianism. Everyone wants justice and fair play but sadly perhaps justice and fair play are values shaped by perspective and usually grounded in self-interest.

  1. November 16, 2009 at 8:02 pm

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