Page last updated at 11:47 GMT, Thursday, 5 November 2009

In search of French identity

Claude Levi-Strauss
Claude Levi-Strauss one of France's foremost thinkers

By Emma-Jane Kirby
BBC News, France

Earlier this week, France learned that Claude Levi-Strauss, a leading anthropologist and a member of the elite Academie Francaise, had died aged 100.

Not being familiar with his work, I was intrigued to see what this revered intellectual had written about the characteristics of French society, hoping his discoveries might help me understand better the "je ne sais quoi" that makes the French so very... French.

Unfortunately, Monsieur Levi-Strauss chose to focus most of his major studies on Amazonian and American Indian communities rather than Gallic ones.

There is an apocryphal story that when he was introduced to President Sarkozy at his centenary birthday celebrations, he turned to a colleague with interest and asked: "What tribe is he from?"

A French soccer fan his face painted in the colours of the French flag
The French government says the tricolor should be displayed proudly

The French leader, albeit with different research methods, is currently carrying out his own survey on national identity. Government officials are holding a series of public meetings to canvass opinion about the state of the nation's patriotic spirit.

Around 60% of people say they support his great debate, hoping that the soul-searching exercise will also give them a better sense of how France can still keep its own identity in the 21st Century's increasingly globalised world.

President Sarkozy has long been pushing for France to up its sense of national pride - calling for school children to sing the national anthem in class and to study the letters of revolutionary heroes who died for the glory of the Republic.

Gallic pride

His old presidential rival, Socialist Segolene Royal, is backing him in his mission - she has always been keen on the idea that French people should wave the tricolor flag out of their windows on national holidays.

The minister of national identity... is also the minister of immigration

And what is wrong with a little romantic Gallic pride you may ask? Isn't it that shared collective spirit that makes any nation great?

Not if you are excluded from it warn the government's critics.

Many French people are uncomfortable with the fact that the minister of national identity - who is responsible for leading this debate - is also the minister of immigration.

They fear there will be an inevitable overlap which will point the finger at France's sizeable immigrant population and stigmatise it further.

MPs from the governing right-wing party insist that the debate represents an opportunity for those with immigrant origins to marry France and to embrace the Republic's values.

As one politician put it: "People can now decide if they're a foreigner or French. And if they decide they don't love France, then they can go."

Vineyard country in Saint Tropez, France
France has traditionally promoted values of the countryside and family

The French Communists say such nationalistic rhetoric smacks of the Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazi invaders during World War II.

Perhaps a more measured interpretation would be to acknowledge such language is the habitual domain of the French extreme right.

In the 2007 elections, President Sarkozy made a clear play for their voters, using immigration as one of his key electoral themes.

With regional elections coming up in March next year - just after this national identity debate is due to end - it would be naïve to imagine that the French leader is not already back on his old campaign trail.

The French Republic is supposed to be founded on the principles of liberty, fraternity and equality and part of this debate will be to make sure those tenets are still the pillars of the collective French consciousness.

Yet the government has just had to re-launch a scheme to introduce anonymous CVs. Extensive research showed that it is the Jean-Philippes who get the calls to the job interviews while the Saids and Mohammeds get almost all the rejection letters.

Earlier this week, I was chatting with Patrick Lozes, a black Frenchman who heads a race equality group.

Simpler society

He told me he has never doubted his French identity, but added he would like to know how many of his white fellow citizens consider him to be French.

Do they not, he asked me, from time to time consider me as a foreigner?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
Sarkozy once said if people don't like being in France they only have to leave

He then reminded me of those three founding principles of the French Republic and suggested the idea of equality had somehow got lost along the way.

Perhaps, he smiled, that is what this debate should be looking at.

In some ways this national project is a nostalgic quest to return to the values of La Douce France, the gentle France of yesteryear which championed the countryside and the family.

It is a sort of Gallic interpretation, if you like, of John Major's Back to Basics campaign in Britain in the early 1990s.

It was in this much simpler society that Claude Levi-Strauss would have grown up.

Perhaps he never studied the nature of "Frenchness" precisely because it was so easy to define in his day.

I have just been reading some interviews that Monsieur Levi-Strauss gave a few years before his death.

In one of them he confessed to his interviewer that his ethnological vocation was partly a flight from a century in which he did not feel at home.

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Obituary: Claude Levi-Strauss
03 Nov 09 |  Europe
Anthropologist Levi-Strauss dies
03 Nov 09 |  Europe
French minister denies race slur
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