Every time I finish one of Patrick Weil's books I find myself mentally reviewing my agenda for the first opportunity to go down to the prefecture and inquire about applying for French citizenship. Something I have yet to do though I have lived in France for almost 20 years now. He is simply that eloquent.
Last night I had the immense pleasure of hearing him speak at the Ecole militaire in Paris on this very broad (but fascinating) topic: Being French in the 21st century: Europe, national identity, immigration and integration: (Etre français au XXIe siècle: Europe, identité nationale, immigration, intégration). To my utter delight he was just as compelling a speaker as he is a writer.
It was all the more interesting to me because, unlike most of the audience, I attended as a citizen-in-the-making and not as one who is French by birth or naturalization. The question of trading in my identity as an American in France for the far deeper commitment which is citizenship is one that is often on my mind and is still on the table.
Patrick Weil is an historian and professor of political science who has done some extraordinary work in both the academic and political realms on French identity past and present. His history of French citizenship Qu'est-ce qu'un français? is, in my view, the best place to start understanding the context and history of how identity and citizenship has evolved over time. The answer to the question "What does it mean to be French? very much depends on what era we are talking about it. It is trite but true to say that understanding the present requires a good grounding in the past - something that his book does very very well.
The first part of Weil's talk was a summary of that research - a confrontation of the misunderstandings that the contemporary Frenchman or woman has about his own citizenship. Contrary to popular belief, France has not always been a country of jus soli (citizenship by place of birth).
Jus sanguinas was actually introduced in France under Napoleon (and he was not too sure at the time that it was a good idea) for reasons that had everything to do with the ability of the French to travel and live outside of France and to pass their citizenship on to their children. This citizenship transmission by blood (filiation but only via the father, not the mother) was introduced into French law (Code civil) in this period and was simply borrowed by the Germans who were formulating their own citizenship laws and went looking for a model. For a number of reasons (one of which was conscription for the army) France eventually went back to jus soli. It took Germany much longer to do the same thing albeit for different reasons.
The citizenship regime in France today has both - French citizenship can be transmitted through a French parent or through being born in France - but jus soli is not unconditional in the way it is in the United States under the Fourteenth amendment to the US Constitution. There are residency requirements that must be fulfilled for a child born of foreign parents on French soil. Something I consider very reasonable given the rather perverse effects of US citizenship law on what we are today referring to as "Accidental Americans."
His summary of the history of French citizenship was fascinating but the heart of his talk (for me) was what he calls the Four Pillars of French Nationality (les quatres piliers de la nationalité) which are:
1. Equality of all citizens before the law (le principe d’égalité);
2. Remembrance of the French Revolution (la mémoire de la Révolution française);
3. The French language (la langue française);
4. Separation of Church and State (la laïcité).
Both the equality of citizens and the separation of church and state are very familiar to Americans and, for me, represent a common ground between the two countries and their conception of two relationships: the first between the state and the individual, and the other between the state and religion. Granted, there are differences in how these manifest themselves in each society but fundamentally the underlying principles are the same.
Weil made the very good point that the idea of the separation of Church and state has been wrongly extended from its original purpose - the strict neutrality of the state in matters of religion. What we can see today is another conception of it which views the state's role as an accelerator of the decline of religious belief (a pre-requisite, some argue, to creating a truly "modern" society), To that end there is an attempt to eject religious expression from public life. (See José Casanova for a discussion about these very different views of secularization.)
He contends, and I agree wholeheartedly, that this was never the intention behind la laïcité. The state is not there to hobble religious expression public or private - on the contrary the state is prevented from favoring any religion over another and is not permitted to do anything to restrict an individual's freedom of conscience and the expression of his or her beliefs. Here I would say that this attempt on the part of some in the Hexagon to do that is just as much a problem for me as a Roman Catholic as it is for the members of minority religions here.
The other two pillars - the memory of the French Revolution and the French language - are more specific to France, though not entirely. Despite the negative opinions of some, French is still an international language and is spoken in countries all over the world. In the living memory of my American family there are French speakers. Yes, these francophones are separated by several generations but still, between my great-grandmother Celeste (a Québecoise) and myself (who could be considered in some ways a case of reverse migration), French is very much alive. Furthermore I have done quite a bit of traveling outside both France and the United States and from Asia to Africa French has proven not only to be useful but in some cases was the sole means by which I could communicate with the people I met.
There were some very good questions asked during the question and answer period at the end of the talk but the one that was the most poignant was about the perceived rejection of France by immigrants and the children of immigrants. This is something that is very painful for all parties and is one element among others cited when there is talk of a "crisis" of French identity. There is suspicion that the machine of integration which has worked so well has somehow failed today and the French are searching for reasons why. Weil's response was that it has not failed. In the bitterness of these young people one can see that their disappointment comes from a sense of rejection. If they didn't want to be French and didn't love France then there would be no sense of love thwarted.
This is something I can speak to directly as an immigrant. I would not have the audacity to compare myself directly to the situation faced by North Africans here - the relationship between my home country and France is very different - and I would be the first to say that theirs is the harder road.
And yet their expressions of bitterness find a faint echo in my own heart. Above and beyond the constantly changing requirements for naturalization here what I have sensed for years is a lack of any encouragement to become a French citizen. A desire to do so is often met with a great deal of suspicion. "Why would you want to be French?" is a legitimate question but the way it is all too often formulated is a bit perverse. Sometimes I have to wonder if the French person asking the question actually values his own French citizenship since he seems to be implying that being French is simply not interesting in light of the citizenship I already possess.
In other cases there is a sense that the person asking the question is searching for some sort of ulterior motive, a purely utilitarian one, as if somehow trading in my residency permit for a French would actually provide me with some sort of material benefit above and beyond what I already receive as a long-term resident. (The answer, of course, is that there is really only one and that is voting).
Even in the heart of my French family here there is no enthusiasm for my desire to become a French citizen. If I add to this all the conversations I am privy to in which foreigners are vilified for their presence and perceived abuse of social services and their integration issues then, yes, all this culminates in an overall sense of rejection. It is not a question, as one person put it, of having the red carpet rolled out before me, but rather ridding myself of the sense that I am not wanted here any more than any other foreigner.
To those who say, well, fill out your naturalization dossier and let the French authorities determine the answer to that question, my reply would be that I have absolutely no desire to be a "paper citizen" - one with a passport and identity papers without the acceptance, equality and freedom of conscience. That is the path of frustration taken by other migrants and their children before me with the consequences we see today.
That I can listen to Weil's words and be so inspired and yet remain unsure about the reality of two of his Four Pillars of French Nationality is a bad sign. I can only speak for myself and make no claims whatsoever to speak for any other migrants here in the Hexagon but I suspect that Weil's calls for a dialogue would be welcome.
Let us indeed mettre à plat these concerns, suspicions and misunderstandings. If we can, as Eva Hoffman proposes, try to "think from the other point of view, to stand on the other end of the triangle's base," the exercise in empathy alone would take us in the more positive direction which is the sharing of our mutual "topologies of experience" and the search for common ground.