Race, French national identity, and disciplinary politics

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.

8 thoughts on “Race, French national identity, and disciplinary politics

  1. That’s an interesting distinction. In America, it seems that we’re just as likely to “keep it to ourselves” as we are to trumpet it far and wide, and yet both acts are usually indicative of the core values (“freedom,” “equality,” etc).

    I’ve heard that flying the tricolor outside one’s house in France is a signal that one is politically hard-right (as in Le Pen hard-right). The same act, in America, has far more broad, and far less predictable, implications.

    What I find most interesting about this situation is the idea of academia being called on in the first place–especially the humanities–explicitly to perform some service as part of a “national dialogue.” It’s something that I can’t ever imagine happening in America, for nefarious purposes or not. The closest we’ve come, perhaps, is in calling on climatologists to help craft messages on global warming, but our political class relies far more on labor unions, think tanks, and corporate/religious lobbies for the fulfillment of this role than it ever will academia.

    Slightly off-topic, but what’s the feeling in France, if any, about Switzerland’s ban on minarets?

  2. Yeah, the humanities seldom get called up in the service of a national dialogue in the US — thought note that they weren’t being asked to really speak in this case; they were just being invited as audience members. But when I think about national kinds of events — like haven’t there been national forums on reading, often led by the First Lady or the like? — I think that in America they would be more likely to request a famous author of some sort to participate than a humanities professor. That said, I do get the sense that a few famous American humanists do make the newspapers — Judith Butler or Slavoj Zizek have been in the new york times, and even someone like Sam Pickering from UConn is probably occasionally invited to non-academic events, don’t you think? It’s true, however, that intellectuals are much better regarded overall in France than in the US and more in the public view; partly that’s just a kind of cultural fact and partly I think it has to do with a much closer institutional integration between elite academic institutions and the state. The fact that there has been much more of a centralized, technocratic government with a lot of power to set uniform, national policy has offered more possibilities for successful intellectuals to influence the centers of decision-making, whereas in the US things like education policy are much more decentralized.

    I didn’t quite get what your first paragraph was about. However, I can tell you that, depressingly, a lot of French people seem to think that banning the minarets is an excellent idea. I haven’t followed closely, but it’s far from generally condemned.

  3. My first paragraph was in reference to the part about identity being considered by the petitioners to be a “private matter.” In America, it seems that American identity is just as likely to be a very public matter as it is to be practiced privately, but that the implications of one or the other (that one is “more in line with shared values” than the other) isn’t always clear. The implications of flying the American flag, for example, don’t seem to be as clear-cut as I’ve heard they are in France.

    It seems that, in America, public displays tend to be viewed as a reinforcement of ideals like “freedom” and “liberty,” whereas keeping political, religious, etc. values completely in the private realm epitomizes those values in France (public displays being perceived as potential incursions on those values). (Which perhaps explains the stance on banning symbols?)

    I agree that the way the university system is set up in America–as mostly a state-based affair, if we leave private universities aside–probably contributes to the situation of academics rarely being called on to play a role in “national dialogues.” I guess what I find kind of strange about France is that an academic, such as Alain Badiou, could actually “create a stir” by, say, criticizing Sarkozy. I can’t picture a single academic with that kind of power in America. I mean, we have Noam Chomsky, I suppose, but the extent to which he’s ever been able to “create a stir” is debatable at best. Though I suppose I don’t have a first-hand idea of how deep Badiou’s criticisms of Sarkozy have been felt in French culture (I saw him on BBC’s HardTalk discussing the matter, which would seem to indicate that there were waves of some note).

  4. I was under the impression that a big U.S.-France difference was the greater respect from the general public that professors of humanities receive in France. But of course other sorts of intellectuals have more influence, e.g. people working on education policy, energy policy, trade policy, environmental policy, etc. When it comes to these experts its unclear to me whether they have more or less influence in either country.

  5. I guess I was thinking more in terms of popular appeal. I’m sure all sorts of academics have influence on government policy behind the scenes in America, but it’s not often that they “create a stir” with the public at large. For example, philosophers are rarely asked to make statements on national television shows in America, whereas that seems to be fairly commonplace in France.

  6. Maybe I’m prejudiced, but I don’t think I would call an expert working on trade policy an ‘intellectual.’ More like a ‘technocrat.’ In France, at least, a quite strong cultural distinction is made between the two roles (and even in the US there is a whole social science literature that’s about the distinction between intellectuals, experts, and other such social roles). I rather agree with Max, being an effective French intellectual is essentially a matter of having a public audience. But it may also be the case that public media access can translate into a certain amount of actual political influence in France. For example, the birth of the term “intellectuals” in the turn-of-the-20th-century French Dreyfus Affair had everything to do with famous authors causing a public scandal that ultimately had major political ramifications. So while I think the existence of behind-the-scenes academic advisors is pretty straightforward (either they have the ear of some government official or they don’t), the political impact of intellectuals who speak in public is somewhat harder to pin down, I think. About Chomsky, btw, I wouldn’t be surprised if his political impact has changed over the years… this article actually has a lot of pretty interesting details about the changing political reception of his work in the 70s and 80s (I hadn’t realized one of his books was almost censored for unpatriotism in 1973!):


    but one would have to look into his influence around the time of Vietnam. My sense is that he has been marginalized ever since by the official American intelligentsia.

  7. I agree that the word intellectual is often used the way you suggest. But even with that distinction, there are individuals who are first influential for their narrow expertise, then achieve public recognition and popular influence. Economists like Paul Krugman, and Gary Becker. Political scientist James Q. Wilson, sociologist William Julius Wilson. Law professors like Posner or Lessig. Even far less famous experts sometimes address the public directly, my father was on Lou Dobbs a couple months ago and recently wrote this for the online new york times: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/19/the-case-for-a-job-creation-tax-credit/

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