I saw the following statements posted on Sauvons l’Université. I have, of course, no personal knowledge of the facts of the situation, but it’s a culturally interesting scenario:
Academics solicited for participation in a “debate” about “national identity” (nov-dec. 2009)
Mail addressed to a teacher-researcher at a university in Nantes
In the framework of the debate over national identity, on Friday December 11th, 2009, at 6:30pm, the prefect plans to welcome Monsieur Jean-François SIRINELLI, professor of contemporary history at SciencesPo and director of the SciencesPo history center.
The prefect, Jean DAUBIGNY, will preside at the meeting. Monsieur SIRINELLI will speak on the theme of “National and Republican Identity.” His comments will be followed by those of Monsieur MENARD, regional delegate for research. The debate will then be opened to all.
The prefect would like to see the audience composed of high school and university students. He would deeply like to see university students and teachers in letters and languages participating in the event.
He would be grateful if you could please distribute this invitation to students and teachers. You will find the invitation attached.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me at …
very best wishes, […]
Communiqué from the Tours section of SNESUP [the major university faculty union]
November 25, 2009
The Indre-et-Loire prefecture has solicited historians and sociologists from the University of Tours to participate in local debates over national identity, organized under the auspices of the prefecture and of the UMP deputies Claude Greff and Philippe Briand, and within the framework of the national debate desired by the Minister of Immigration and of National Identity. The SNESUP section of the University of Tours is stunned first of all that a government whose policies for years have been hostile towards the human and social sciences – not to mention towards scholarly knowledge and researchers in general – would so abruptly admit the utility and virtue of these disciplines when it deems they can serve its ends. But above all, SNESUP is obliged to state that the government’s instrumentalization of this pretended debate has reactionary and racist purposes. SNESUP therefore calls on teacher-researchers to refuse to participate in these debates.
Now, what makes this an ethnographically rich pair of texts is that they reveal a conjuncture of disciplinary politics with issues of race and French national identity. On the disciplinary politics front, what you should know as a foreign reader is that (a) it’s probably true that run-of-the-mill human scientists, under Sarkozy’s center-right UMP government, have rather seldom received official invitations of this sort, so it obviously comes as a surprise; and more importantly (b) many humanists and social scientists see their disciplines as threatened by ongoing UMP university reforms, and certainly feel little governmental recognition. This lack of recognition is certainly related to (c) a certain affinity between human and social sciences and the French left, and the affiliation between the SNESUP union and the French left in particular. They seem to be part of the Fédération Syndicale Unitaire, which Wikipedia says is linked to the French Communist Party, though the significance of any of that remains to be seen. It is clear, at any rate, that the rejection of a UMP invitation is partly due to the climate of political hostility that has developed around the last several years of university reforms.
But what might be even less familiar, for a foreign observer, is the reference to a “debate on national identity.” It turns out that on Nov. 2nd, Sarkozy’s Minister of Immigration (significantly enough) officially opened a debate on national identity, the aim being “to construct a better shared vision of what our national identity is today… to reinforce our national identity and to reaffirm Republican values and the pride of being French.” Though for the moment I don’t have a very detailed understanding of the debate, it was supposed to take place in prefectoral meetings (like the one advertised above) and online, and seems to have stirred up a fair amount of debate in the press. It is, of course, a famous cause of the French far right to claim “France for the French” (La France aux français), to intimate that immigrants weaken national identity and should be sent home. “Immigrants” in France, as I said yesterday in a comment to Mike, are often official code for “Africans and North Africans,” people who aren’t white. According to one acquaintance of mine in Saint-Denis, anxiety over “immigrants” is also and importantly code for cultural anxieties over jobs and over the racialization of working-class labor relations; I don’t know how to track this down for sure, but what good materialist would doubt that there’s some link between the economic situation and the perception of foreigners?
At any rate, a number of prominent professors have signed a petition against this Debate on National Identity, claiming that, as organized by the government, it can be “neither free, nor pluralist, nor useful.” They go on to explain: “It is not useful because this diverting maneuver is a machine for producing division among the French and for stigmatizing foreigners.” The “foreigners” they have in mind are probably largely the Africans and North Africans; there are, in fact, certain prejudices against other kinds of immigrants, such as the large English population who have increasingly bought vacation houses in France, but this latter prejudice seems to be cast less a threat to national identity and more as a kind of anger with a class of permanent, overly entitled and linguistically ignorant tourists. The British aren’t part of the job market or the national culture in the same way, and unless I’m quite wrong, these white propertyowners aren’t the kind of immigrants that the current national identity debate invokes.
SNESUP’s invocation of “racist” and “reactionary,” at any rate, invokes a French left reading of this debate as being a kind of passage towards greater nationalist xenophobia. And their overtly political rejection of the debate differs interestingly from the rejection proposed in the petition I cited, where the rejection of the national debate is based substantially on a claim that the government commits a conceptual error in trying to speak about French identity. The petitioners claim that “identity is a private affair” and thus that “The Republic does not have an assigned identity, hardened and closed; rather it has political principles, living and open.” Partly they’re trying to justify their claim that any attempt to fix national identity will elide France’s internal diversity. But I’m also struck by their conceptual claim that the Republic can be defined not by a national essence or identity, but by a kind of ongoing political process that must be defended. The extreme valorization of the political is a central feature of French left republicanism, it seems to me, with its ongoing fixation on la lutte (the struggle). I don’t know if this is something that happens in the U.S., where politics is so stigmatized and spectacular, and there’s often a sense that politics is dirty and ugly but we have to go through with it anyway. It would be good (as usual) to find a more rigorous way of framing this comparison. But for the time being, I’m curious to see what develops in this clash of university politics with national public politics. It may be that my research project will fail to confine itself to strictly academic issues and expand to examine the relation between academic politics and broader French political conjunctures.