A debate is taking place on what it means to be French, inspired by the minister dealing, or not, with immigration, Eric Besson.....whose ex wife's book details his refusal to vow fidelity at their wedding ceremony, a refusal validated by what she has to say about his serial infidelities during the marriage. Perish the thought that a politician could be inconsistent, so one can only suppose that he thinks marital infidelity is one component of the French identity he wishes to promote among native French and immigrants alike. I knew that he opposed women wearing the burqua, but his wife's revelations now lead me to suppose that it might not be a cultural question as such, but more of an objection to an obstacle to his ability to size up the talent.
Wanting to have your cake and eating it might well figure as a more general French characteristic.....contestants in the Koh Lanta television 'reality' show - a designation which has always puzzled me given the nature of these programmes - have claimed that they were not participants, but, get this, employees! Furthermore, a court agrees with them, and they have been awarded their entitlement - a few days paid at the minimum wage, the SMIC, and their social security payments made for the period. The television company concerned has, following the logic of the ruling, decided that as the winner was in fact an employee they don't have to pay him the prize he won by eating beetles and suffering the humiliations inseparable from reality shows, just a few days' pay on the SMIC. Not quite what he bargained for, but then, anything to do with eating cake in France has been a bit risky ever since the days of Marie Antoinette.
As part of Monsieur Besson's campaign to emphasise French identity, it has been proposed that children should sing the national anthem, 'La Marseillaise', at least once a year in their schools. A brief perusal of the words reveals a certain lack of warmth toward those other than the native French.....are the French to support the presence in their country of foreign cohorts who would impose their own laws upon the French? Well, bang goes the European Union then. Impure blood shall flow in the furrows of the fields.....we get the message, thanks. France is for the French.
Which brings us full circle. What is it that makes someone French? Born in France...perhaps, in terms of nationality, in formal terms, but what makes someone shout for the French team in the Six Nations rugby tournament, or for 'les bleus' - the national football team? I don't qualify, that's for sure. In the last rugby world cup, held in France, France beat England in the preliminary rounds.....all around us, deep in the country, the night air resounded to 'La Marseillaise' bawled from every farm - impure blood had appropriately been made to flow, no doubt. When England beat France in the semi finals, no sound whatever rent the firmament, except for 'Rule Britannia' blasting out from the speakers on our terrace. If I'd had 'Hearts of Oak' I'd have played that too. I'd never pass the Tebbit test, any more than would the north african immigrants and their families who whistled down 'La Marseillaise' at a football match between France and Algeria in Paris.
Perhaps we should be posing a different question. Why is it that people who come to France to live and work don't want to identify with the country? Let's start with why I was playing 'Rule Britannia' during the rugby world cup as I am more at ease and, shall we say authoritative, in the examination of my own reactions than in pontificating about others.
I cannot say that I ever thought of myself in terms of my nationality...I had a culture and the associated assumptions and I thought that these were common to Europe....our shared christian, post Roman heritage. Then I moved to France.
I cannot claim either that I swiftly became aware that it was not just a question of language...I was living out in the sticks among ordinary people, learning to communicate, imbibing their customs and adjusting to their mentality. Except that I could not adjust. Why should decent, upright people feel that
'Nous sommes pour rien'........'We count for nothing'?
I began to learn. The French Revolution of 1789 mght have overturned royal power, but it was instigated and shaped by the French middle class, much more adept than the 'aristos' in exacting the last sou from the peasants living on the land these lawyers and merchants bought at the auctions of the property of those who had emigrated from France as the old order crumbled. Nothing much changed in the countryside until the German occupation in the 1940s when the farmers found that they could sell their produce at top prices both to the occupying power and to the starving people from the towns, so that at the end of the second world war, the farmers could afford to buy out the leases from their bourgeois landlords, impoverished by the war, and could become independent. Post war food policy and the Common Agricultural Policy further strengthened their position to the point where their interests began to mesh with those of the bourgeoisie proper, with whom they began to assimilate and to inherit the fruits of 1789. If you're not part of that group then, truly, you count for nothing.
I think that it is this fruit from a rotten tree that sets on edge the teeth of immigrants...the fanatical nationalism, the sense of superiority, the wish to impose, born of an era when the new France was surrounded on all sides by enemies......the vision of the state as embodying the will of the people - and woe betide any sector of the people who disagree........the obscene lust for money and the pursuit of the last brass farthing, the actual religion of the bourgeoisie who came to power at the fall of the monarchy.
As an immigrant, all goes well while you play the game. While you accept that someone incompetent will be appointed because they are French even though your qualifications are superior.....while you see your daughter, with a gift for languages, being directed to a career as a secretary rather than as a graduate level translator, because you were not born in France....while your children learn from newly qualified teachers, sent to the sink schools in the largely immigrant suburbs by an administration that doesn't consider it worthwhile to send in experienced staff to improve the life chances of children of non French parents.....while you accept the third world standards of service.....while you accept the rip offs from French artisans because you bear a foreign name....
When an immigrant doesn't accept his or her lot, the solids hit the fan.
I remember the employee of France Telecom, when upbraided for total incompetence, telling me that if I didn't like it, I could go home - not just to my house, but to my country of origin.
The railway clerk who refused to issue me with my prepaid and prebooked ticket responding to my request as to what I was supposed to do to get home with the lapid statement
'Vous etes foutue, Madame.' 'You're f.......ed, lady.'
The plumber who came in with an estimate for putting in a stop cock that would have paid for a last minute holiday in Turkey who became a red as a Turkey cock when it was queried, announcing that he had had enough of British clients....they shouldn't ask for estimates when they couldn't pay.
I have and have had a number of French friends, ordinary people, just trying to keep their heads above water. I have a few immigrant friends, not all of them British, either working or retired in France. The common denominator is that we all try to see things as they are, not as they are presented, and, in my case, that means playing 'Rule Britannia' when the England fifteen hammer France because I don't appreciate being treated as a second class citizen in a third rate society.
Now........let's just have cricket in the Olympics and I'll have to go looking for a recording of
'Advance, Australia fair.'