Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Who Gets to Be French?

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Who Gets to Be French?

Article excerpt

There are opposing approaches to what it means to be French -- one rooted in an uncompromising ideal of assimilation, the other grounded in the messy realities of multiculturalism.

The French language is justly renowned for its clarity and precision. Yet on a seemingly simple matter its speakers stumble into a fog -- who or what can be defined as French? The question arose afresh in the wake of the Toulouse killings. No one doubted that the perpetrator was 23-year-old Mohammed Merah, a native son of Algerian descent. But was Mr. Merah French?

Impossible, declared four members of Parliament belonging to President Nicolas Sarkozy's center-right party. In a joint statement, they insisted that Mr. Merah "had nothing French about him but his identity papers."

Nonsense, retorted the leftist journal Liberation: "Merah is certainly a monster, but he was a French monster." A childhood friend of Mr. Merah provided an elaboration: "Our passports may say that we are French, but we don't feel French because we were never accepted here. No one can excuse what he did, but he is a product of French society, of the feeling that he had no hope and nothing to lose. It was not Al Qaeda that created Mohammed Merah. It was France."

These opposing approaches to what it means to be French -- one rooted in an uncompromising ideal of assimilation, the other grounded in the messy realities of multiculturalism -- struck a chord with me. While researching a book on the politics of diversity with my wife, Shareen Blair Brysac, I encountered not only the exclusionary attitude prevailing in metropolitan Paris, but also the more tolerant worldview epitomized by the port city of Marseille -- a worldview that the rest of France would be well served to embrace.

To exclusionists, the test of French-ness is straightforward: Have you relinquished any other identity you might have had? As articulated by President Sarkozy in 2011: "If you come to France, you accept to melt into a single community, which is the national community, and if you do not want to accept that, you are not welcome in France. We have been too concerned with the identity of the person who was arriving, and not enough about the identity of the country that was receiving him."

It's an old conundrum. From the days of the Jacobins to today's Fifth Republic, lawmakers have differed strenuously as to whether nationality should be determined by birth, parentage, length of residency or assimilation. The French scholar Patrick Weil has noted that France has changed its nationality laws "more often and more significantly than any other democratic nation."

How does one become a citizen of the exclusionists' France? By knowing its cultural references and intricate folkways, as described in 1969 by the writer Sanche de Gramont: "The Frenchman is not someone who possesses a navy blue passport and speaks the language of Descartes, but someone who knows who broke the Soissons vase, what happened to Buridan's donkey, why Parmentier gave his name to a hash, and why Charles Martel saved Christendom. …

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