A serious French identity crisis: Who do you think you are?

Reading time 8 min.
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In the old musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, there is the chorus that sings the question: Jesus Christ, Superstar, who do you think you are? A very pertinent question to someone claiming to be the son of God and wanting to redeem souls through his message but choosing to be born in the wrong place at a backward time instead of coming today to pass his message via the internet and the new mass media to the world at large. The question of identity is perennial. Who are you? Who do you think you are? Are you who you think you are?

Of all the people I claim to know there is none more preoccupied by identity like the French. This is best expressed by the French bureaucracy and its persistent and obsessive need to know and ascertain who you are. A naive person may infer some serious concerns for his or her welfare but the problem is elsewhere. Actually, France does not know itself really. There was a time it considered itself an Empire, an era that ended after Vietnam and Algeria, though someone has forgotten to tell France that, and thus it continues to strut as a big Empire with tin pot dictators of small countries in Africa fawning over or under it in a Franceafrique that is as laughable as the British Commonwealth.

The Empire syndrome gives an obsession with History and the need to mould others into one’s will or under one’s rule and diktat. Furthermore, France has suffered many humiliations (1870, 1940, etc) but it has refused to accept or acknowledge this heavy weight of history and pretends all is well in its pursuit of grandeur. For the confusion, poor souls of colour have to pay, of course. The identity crisis that has struck France has thrown it into a contradiction in which it considers islands inhabited by dark skinned fellows as its overseas territories and the people as French at the same time, as it yearns feverishly to keep its basically white identity. Hence, the present need to debate its national identity spearheaded by a minister of immigration (Eric Besson) who himself has changed his political colour so radically that many wonder who he really is. Who are you people? Are you proud of being French? Can Eyoum, Mamadou, Latifa, Kim or Ananda be really French? Who do you think you are? And the trap question: are you proud of who you are– that is to say are you proud of being French?

The Kenyans had an attorney general called Charles Njonjo who believed he was British and looked down upon his countrymen. For a while, Idi Amin imagined he was a Scot. Emperor Bokassa called De Gaulle Papa and took himself as French. Some Arabs think they are white and discriminate against Black Africans while in Ethiopia, the birthplace of human kind, the people think they are the one and only chosen people. Delusions and illusions over identity, a mess into which the argument seeking French want to wade in.

Alas, the non-white French are thus trapped. What with their non French religion, their penchant for scarification, genital mutilation, witchcraft, polygamy, barbarity, marabous, bizarre cultures and languages. What with their noise and smell as one old French politician said without shame. Who are they? Are they really French? Are they proud of being French? If so, why are they still clinging to their other identity? What is it being French? The whole concept of national identity was first spawned by the right wing National Front, headed by a paratrooper who excelled in torturing Algerians, to affirm that French means white and may the darkies and their turbans, the Arabs and their hijabs please go away. Sarkozy tweaked the fear of being flooded by immigrants to garner votes away from the Socialists who, in my view, have yet to prove themselves free of the malady of racism and have time and again shown that they also pander to the right wing prejudices. Is being French defined by “nepotism a la Sarkozy?” Is “Frenchness” singing the national anthem that has lines about “impure blood irrigating our farmlands”? Or does it refer only to, as Parisian kids used to sing, “our ancestors the Gaul (who) had blue eyes and blond hairs”? Does France symbolize the land of refuge when last year it expelled some 30,000 asylum seekers (some sent back to the dungeons and their deaths), the present immigration minister (the very man heading the debate) vows he will surpass this figure and more than 200,000 refugees are denied recognition and legal papers? The Senegalese born French Minister of Sports, Rama Yade, tried to define what France means to her, talked of de Gaulle and the “greatness of France joined with the liberty of the world” almost as if she believes in such inanity. Wild!

Clichés and platitudes aside, the deafening assertion of France being the land of liberty ( egalite, fraternite et liberte) aside, the present reality of France is poignantly captured by the suffering of the “sans papiers” (undocumented immigrants), the pain of the deportees, the poverty of the African street cleaners, the institutionalized racism, the rage of the marginalized youths, and the neo colonial interference in the affairs of African countries. France is also a Pascal Sevran blaming the “African penis for the African famine” and calling for mass sterilization, a Kouchner defending the Burmese junta and Total, a Giscard d’Estaing dealing with Bokassa over diamonds, a Sarkozy declaring Africa has yet to enter the doors of modernity, a Chirac complaining of our noise and odour, and of the common people giving millions of votes to the likes of Le Pen.

France, being a country of contradictions and with a multi ethnicity and multi-culturalism that it is refusing to accept as legit, is indeed fascinating to observe and dissect. The French obsession with splitting hairs and complicating all and sundry when it can be rendered simple once again makes the discussion on national identity a hurdle. As an obsession of the right wing, this search for a lily white national identity (our ancestor the Gaul), is doomed to a resounding failure. As a discussion to enhance integration and build a multi cultural and multi ethnic France its beginning does not augur well. The very man in charge of the ministry of immigration and promising to deport our black and brown bodies back to our own backyards is the one in charge of the discussion on this crucial issue. Up to now, the declarations have on the whole proved to be platitudes. Equality is a myth, integration an illusion no matter if, during naturalization, you accept the insistence to change your name from the original to a French one (the Turks also buy athletes from Africa and force them to change their names). Liberty? As James Baldwin who knew France said of another matter: go tell it on the mountain outside of France if you can, please. Fraternity? Between the ones organising the deportation and the deportees? Between the street cleaner and the Neuilly (upscale Parisian suburb) residents? In your dreams, Madame et Monsieur.

As elsewhere in the world, where double standards triumph, the question of identity rests on wealth and colour of skin. A Sarkozy or Pontiawoski is easily accepted as French more than a Mamadou and Kwaku or Abdella and Kapoor. A useful and rich African or Arab (tennis or football star) will be identified as French more than the impoverished and blighted resident of the Banlieues/Projects/Ghettos/Council flats. And yet again, even for those who may be accepted, naturalized, officially called French, there is always the question: where are you originally from? I was born and raised in Paris. Oh yeah, good for you. But your parents come from Bab el Oued, Dakar, Bangui, no? The name, the accent and above all the colour are important giveaways in determining national identity. And yet, the trend is against those who want to go back to the lore of their blond hair blue eyed ancestors and the mythic pure race. They came to us first as colonizers and, warm hearted as we are, we have believed their message of fraternity and came back to them as émigrés.

What’s in a name? The French national identity will have to include everyone, good or bad, just as it has embraced the Sarkozys (Hungary), the Moscovicis (Romania), Balladurs (Turkey) and even Eric Besson (the present Franco-Lebanese immigration minister) among other foreigners in the past. There is really no need for a discussion on this. Foreigners, as it were, are becoming presidents not only in France but also in the USA and well-bred Parisian kids will one day sing of “our kinky haired and brown eyed ancestors”. For the time being in France, Jesus Christ, as it were, remains a French speaking, blond and blue-eyed man of Northern European stock.

The Other Afrik  The Other Afrik is an alternative and multi-faceted information source from Afrik-News' panel of experts. Contributions include : opinions, reviews, essays, satires, research, culture and entertainment news, interviews, news, information, info, opinion, africa, african-american, europe, united states, international, caribbean, america, middle east, black, France, U.K.
Hama Tuma
Hama Tuma, Ethiopian author, poet and journalist, has been active in the political and human rights struggle in Ethiopia and Africa since the sixties. His satirical essays under the general title of African Absurdities have gained support from many quarters. Some of his books (English and Amharic) have been translated to French, Italian and Hebrew.
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