It is clearly not easy for man to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression. They do not feel comfortable without it. The advantage which a comparatively small cultural group offers of allowing this instinct an outlet in the form of hostility against intruders is not to be despised.
Sigmund Freud. Civilization and Its DiscontentsI first came to France to live in 1989 after I had completed my studies at university. Like many other migrants I was not sure I would stay but it seemed a fine adventure and I was young and in love, the family was more than welcoming and I thought the country was beautiful. The differences between my vision of France and the reality became apparent quite quickly and the awareness of just how hard it was going to be to make a life here was almost overwhelming. Finding a job was difficult since my French was poor and my credentials frequently misinterpreted. Obtaining my residency card meant going to a clinic that resembled a factory processing cattle for a medical exam - the sheer humiliation of being part of a human assembly line waiting to be x-rayed and being asked very personal questions by the immigration officials. And then there was the sense that my entire world had turned upside down and I could no longer do anything right. Life seemed to be an endless series of encounters where I was
corrected or admonished for using the wrong words, not doing the proper thing or simply not understanding fast enough for the people around me. In this sea of uncertainty I clung to what I was, an American, with all the desperation of the survivor of a shipwreck clinging to a lifeboat.
Over the years, I did integrate. My French improved. I learned what to do and what not to do to such an extent that it became natural. I learned firsthand the power of culture to mold and shape us - even the way I thought changed and I reveled in the ability to switch from one language to another, from one set of cultural practices to another, with relative ease. And that was when my motives for proclaiming my American identity changed. It became less a lifeboat and more a statement of independence and an expression of difference: a way of remaining a "neutral observer," someone in this society and culture but not of it. I have genuinely enjoyed my status as "Exotic Beast" for many years. Americans are a very small minority here in France and we enjoy a relatively high status. It was a very comfortable place to be as it allowed me to proclaim love and admiration for this country while retaining the right to
criticize it and comment on it as an outsider, a position which essentially absolved me from any responsibility for changing it or caring for it too deeply.
Re-reading Freud's words today I can re-interpret my actions as a kind of aggression against the world in which I live. And I had to ask myself, is this really what I want? To be be forever separate and turn that one part of my identity against a people who have educated my children, cared for me when I was ill, taught me their language, and given me opportunities to live and prosper and raise my children?
Amin Maalouf says that everyone from time to time should perform an "examen d'identité" (an examination of identity) similar to an examination of conscience. This exercise is useful, he believes, not in order to find the one true identity that defines us but with an entirely different objective:
Je fouille ma mémoire pour débusquer le plus grand nombre d'éléments de mon identité, je les rassemble, je les aligne, je n'en renie aucun.When I performed this exercise and I added together all the identities that make me what I am right here and now (American, Roman Catholic, French resident, Francophone, Anglophone, mother, aunt, sister, child, cousin, friend, writer, musician) I realized that not one ever takes precedence over any other. None are, shall we say, "predatory" in the sense that they require the extinction of others to live in me. I am all those things and all these things can co-exist serenely in the same body and mind. And, thanks to them, I can parse all these identities at any given moment to find a common link with the people I meet, the people I live with and the people I love.
I search my memory to flush out the maximum number of elements of my identity, I put them together, I align them, and I deny none of them.
Chacune de mes appartenances me relie à un grand nombre de personnes; cependant, plus les appartenances que je prends en compte sont nombreuses, plus mon identité s'avère spécifique.
Each one of my adherences connects me to a large number of people; however, the more groups I belong to, the more my identity proves to be specific.
Grâce a chacune de mes appartenances, prise séparément, j'ai une certaine parenté avec un grand nombre de mes semblables; grâce aux memes critères, pris tous ensemble, j'ai mon identité propre, qui ne se confond avec aucune autre.
Thanks to all my adherences, taken separately, I have a certain relationship with a large number of people like me; thanks to the same elements, taken all together, I have my own identity, which can never be confused with any other.
Ainsi, en considérant séparément ces deux éléments de mon identité, je me sens proche, soit par la langue soit par la réligion, d'une bonne moitié de l'humanité.
And so, when I consider separately these two elements of my identity, I feel close to, either by language or religion, to nearly half of humanity.
Becoming French would change absolutely nothing in terms of my material well-being. As a legal resident I already have access to healthcare, to a French pension, to fulfilling work. My children are already French so that decision is a fait accompli. The only things I cannot do here as a resident are vote and work in the public service sector. I have read Patrick Weil's work carefully and I understand and support the fundamental principles of the French Republic which he writes about so eloquently. I have read the Charte that I will be asked to sign if my request is received favorably and there is nothing in it I do not adhere to. This is not a hasty decision - on the contrary, it has taken me nearly 20 years of reflection to arrive here. And, finally, the French nation is not asking me to renounce or deny any other part of my identity. French citizenship is not at all "predatory" and does not require that I erase my other identities, be they religious, linguistic or family, in order to hold exclusive allegiance in my person. All I am being asked to do is open my heart and mind and make an equal space for a French one.
It is in that spirit that I am making my request for citizenship. I want to confirm publicly what I feel in common with 65 million other French people in the world and not spend the rest of my life as a narcissist of difference, proclaiming one part of my identity, when what I really want is to express my gratitude and my profound attachment to this country.