‘Frenchness’ is an entrenched concept in French society. According to Toupie.org, French identity is defined as ‘the feeling a person has of being part of a nation. This feeling is specific to each person. However, for sociology, it is an internalisation of identity references, resulting from the permanent visibility of the nation’s ‘common points,’ which can take the form of symbols. This visibility is, in general, voluntarily organised by the State in order to impregnate individuals with it from their childhood.’
Thus, every person who is born and raised in France should surely feel integrated, and be in harmony, with this cultural identity. However, this idea of French identity came back to the forefront in November of 2009, when Eric Besson announced the launch of a debate on the topic. It was a 2-month debate which quickly went off track. Hostile comments stereotyping the Muslim and Arab community have been common.
A right-wing politician for instance wanted the young French Muslim to not speak slang and not wear a cap upside down.
A mayor said on a TV set, ‘It’s time we react, we’re going to get eaten. There are already ten million of them. Ten million that we pay for nothing’, referring to foreigners.
Back to the roots: Assimilation, the mother of French identity
The concept of assimilation initially concerned other fields, namely religion, and the natural sciences, then it was during the colonial period that this concept was transposed onto human relations. Beyond that, it takes on a political dimension at the official end point of slavery. The slaves, liberated, lived in the colonial empire. The question of assimilation arose when these slaves wanted to have the same rights as white French citizens. Pap Ndiaye explains it in his book, La condition Noire: Essai sur une minorité française: ‘From this perspective, assimilation refers to the tendency of people of colour to adopt external signs of social and racial distinction specific to whites. In the slave society, the social hierarchy is articulated with the racial hierarchy.’
Assimilation is first considered as way to emancipate the former slaves. For the opponents to colonization (they were few in number), assimilation is seen as a way to support equal rights for all citizens, regardless the ethnicity, which is inconceivable.Then, assimilation became a way to enhance supremacism. Having thus conceptualised the racial hierarchy, assimilation has a racial connotation. It implies a relationship between ‘superior civilizations’ and ‘inferior civilizations’ and the civilising mission of the settlers. Racial hierarchy and assimilation further encourage the ‘civilisation of the savages.’ .
How assimilation is this exemplified? The official language becomes French. Children in school have no right to speak languages other than French. The school becomes the most effective way to assimilate. To inculcate French history, values, and culture by constantly reminding the people of colour of its superiority. Therefore, the term ‘assimilation’ remains controversial in its very history. Nevertheless, it remains very much present in French political and social spheres today.
Assimilation or a strong desire for ultra-acculturation
Anything considered contrary to French culture is seen as a hostile sign to assimilation and therefore, by extension, to integration into French society, into its culture and Frenchness. As a result, French identity is apparently threatened by elements viewed as being ‘outside’ of French culture, such as the hijab (Islamic veil) or more generally Islam. These threats could, in the long term, make the so-called purity of French identity disappear, a fear shared by defenders of that national identity.
Indeed, the hijab has long been a subject of contention. These political differences became even more accentuated when, in 1989, three students from a college in northern France refused to remove their hijabs and were excluded. The hijab (Islamic veil) is becoming a strong point of divergence. Indeed, for those who oppose the wearing of the hijab, the hijab enslaves women, it is part of another culture and inculcates other values, which are not those of the French Republic and are seen as incompatible with it.
All generations of immigrants raise the question of integration. Even more so the last generation. Third-generation immigrants are often represented in the media in a stereotypical way, specifically one that is not reflected in this French identity debate. This third-generation is being debated by others on issues that concern them directly, but they are never the main protagonist in the discussion. Debates about national identity often return to the mainstream, through various events; indeed, it seems that there is a certain persistence or obsession. These debates do not bring progress or change. In the political sphere, the debate on French identity is simply used as bait to win votes.
My relationship with my cultural identity
My connection with my French identity remains complex because assimilation is something I am recalcitrant to. The arrival of my maternal family in France has a violent history. My grandfather was a war veteran from Guinea, a northwest African country. He had no choice but to fight for the French colonial empire and he was coerced by force. His first name was no longer Gnama but Marc, and he had to devote himself to the liberation of France.
He moved with his family to France in the 1960s. For a better chance at integration, he decided that his children would have French first names. They also spoke only French and their original culture became less and less prominent, if not absent. He was also mistreated by the French army, being sent to a disciplinary regime. These are things that have marked me, seeing this cultural assimilation from a violent history. As a child, I was constantly reminded of my Senegalese heritage, which I accepted and was proud of. Yet, I have always felt somehow that being ‘too’ close to your heritage was not well perceived, as if we wanted to automatically refuse our frenchness and marginalise ourselves from French society
The history of my maternal family and this constant reminder of my Senegalese heritage have, in a way, contributed to my conflicting relationship with my French identity. When I was 14, I went back to Senegal and there I was only French – for them, there was no doubt about it. My way of being, my way of expressing myself, my way of walking, clearly said that I was not Senegalese. It was a shock for me, as I was so proud to say that I was from Senegal and to always showcase the good things about the country.
Too French to be Senegalese, or too Senegalese to be French? Many live this experience, this feeling of in-between, of having no place anywhere. French identity remains an endless debate, especially for those who want more than anything else to achieve total acculturation. For me, French identity is reinventing itself, each person creating their own cultural identity. Assimilation only destroys identity and people – because, with it, it is a part of the self that disappears.