Our Library’s most circulated books of 2013
15 January 2014
Mary Louise Roberts: The Other Stories of GIs in France After Liberation
27 January 2014

Justin E.H. Smith: On writing about French identity, shared culture and immigration

On writing about French identity, shared culture and immigration


In my scholarly work I became interested some time ago in the way our society deals with the ‘problem’ of diversity. But it was only in moving to France a year ago that I realized that what I had previously thought of as a situation extending throughout at least all of the western world was in fact limited to the United States. Europe in general and France in particular have a very different experience of diversity, and this difference stems from the fact that European countries are not thought of as being constituted by immigration. The ‘Old World’ is the place where the same people, supposedly, have resided from time immemorial. But I immediately began to wonder whether this distinction might not be too facile.

The imposition of a homogeneous shared culture across a wide territory has generally come at a great cost for smaller local or regional cultures. Here, the history of modern France serves as a fine example: as many authors have noted, a core component of the French revolution, as important as the standardization of weights and measures or the adoption of a new calendar, was the leveling out of regional differences, the erasure of regional dialects and languages, the transformation of Occitan farmers and Breton shepherds into French citizens purely and simply.

In this respect, the sense today among many French people, that there is a pre-given French identity which is threatened by African immigration, was only made possible by the prior imposition of a homogeneous national culture upon often unwilling local cultures. But if some of us find coerced assimilation of immigrants to the dominant culture objectionable, this may be because in certain ways we tend to think of the world as a cosmopolis, where ideally people with vastly different values and traditions are able to move side by side, to trade with one another and perhaps learn from one another without conflict.

This has in truth been the general condition of the greater part of humanity for most of history. As many anthropologists argue, it is a fool’s game to attempt to learn about human nature from ‘isolated’ or ‘primitive’ tribes, since every human group about which we have any knowledge has existed in some relation to a broader network of other human groups, and usually of states and empires. In this respect the idea of homogeneous national cultures attaching stably to territories is not only an illusion, to the extent that the homogeneity was initially imposed by a concerted campaign, but also to the extent that influence and goods are always flowing in from outside, even if in certain places and times foreign faces and foreign tongues are an unfamiliar occurrence.

And yet, as I’ve already acknowledged, it would be callous to dismiss all local resistance to the influx of new and foreign goods, ideas, or traditions. It would be impudent to tell a southern French farmer to stop carrying on about terroir, and it is not hard to see at least a partial resemblance between this sort of valorisation of the local, on the one hand, and current European xenophobia on the other. A way must therefore be found to assure respect for the preservation of local, organic lifeways, while also effectively conveying the message to people who value these lifeways that the poor African immigrant constitutes far less of a threat to them than the multinational corporation that cares not at all for local cuisines or festivals. It is possible to be communitarian and cosmopolitan at the same time, if we remember that what we value in our community is more or less what the immigrants next door value in theirs, and if we conceive the cosmopolis not as the global reign of multinationals, but as the harmonious overlapping of communities.

That such a conception is so hard to bring about in certain places, at certain times, has mostly to do with the cynical manipulations of political actors, who know that it is easy to stir up interest in electoral politics by blaming ethnic minorities for sundry social and economic problems. In truth everyone –both the scapegoating politicians as well as the defenders of minority rights– understands that the expectation of full assimilation is no longer a reasonable one in a globalized, cosmopolitan world of constant circulation. Cultures never attached rigidly to territories in an exclusive way, and still less can they be expected to do so in the era of jet travel and the Internet.

Justin E.H. Smith will discuss his New York Times article “Does Immigration Mean France is Over?” at the Library on Tuesday, January 21st.



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