What does it mean “to be French”?

Right after the French Revolution, it was rather simple to define someone as French or, in other words, as part of the French nation. With a fairly uniform society composed of French-speaking, catholic, français de souche citizens, there was little to no discussion that they were as “French” as one could be. Nevertheless, what French society was like in the 1700s is completely different from what it looks like nowadays. Ever since the end of French colonialism, migration waves became part of French history. Today, migrants make up approximately 10% of the total French population (INED).

Moreover, with the arrival of immigrants came the introduction of new religions, languages, and traditions that were foreign to the French identity of 1789. Even though the values set out in the French Revolution are still relevant, they began to be questioned and challenged once immigrants made France their new home. The reasoning was that if immigrants are foreign to French culture, the French language, and “Frenchness” overall, are they really French? And if they are not, could one extend the values of liberté, egalité, and fraternité to them?

There are multiple instances in which migration waves challenged French values of identity. Ever since the 18th century, to be French one must abandon all foreign values and see oneself as “French and French only” (Simon, 2012). In the words of Patrick Simon, France rejects the concept of “dual belonging” (1). Furthermore, this concept has been “criticized and perceived at odds with a person’s commitment to French identity” (Simon 6). As a result, immigrants and their descendants find themselves in limbo as they keep their identities and try to decipher what exactly it means to be French. Can they still identify as anything else that is not traditionally French while still being “French”?

This question becomes even more problematic when the values of the Revolution were enacted as laws. For instance, in French law, race plurality is neither supported nor discouraged, but rather completely ignored (El Gharib, 2020). Unlike other Western European countries, France maintains a “color-blind” model of public policy (Bleich, 2016) An example of this “color-blind” principle is that French censuses never mention the race or religion of a French citizen. While these policies aim to “overlook” someone’s background so as to avoid discriminatory and racist attitudes, they fail at targeting benefits or offering recognition to racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.

Articles about the idea of French belonging:

What Does ‘Being French’ Actually Mean?” by Sarah El Gharib. Global Citizen, 2020.

What does it mean to be French?” by John Liechfield. UnHerd, 2019.

Such is the paradox of the modern definition of “being French”: one could be French on paper, yet constantly reminded that they will never be truly French because of who they actually are. French citizenship ideals ironically re-create the same barriers and hierarchies they intended to eliminate by forcing them to go unacknowledged. This view of citizenship leaves no room for the expression of diversity; it perpetuates a form of racism inherited from colonialism under the guise of universalism and equality.

Sarah El Gharib, 2020.

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