On (not) being French (enough) / (Ne pas) être (assez) Français

The French and EU flags crowning the Hôtel de Ville de Paris, with la République presiding below them and, below her, the national motto: Liberté – Égalité – Fraternité [Liberty – Equality – Brotherhood]

I’ve been avoiding this post for most of the five weeks since I founded this blog, but I think if I don’t take a stab at it I’m going to stop blogging, so I might as well jump in. I do this with great trepidation. First (smaller) disclaimer: this is long, and very rough, because I don’t have time to revise posts much before I post them. I hope this post will be revised and edited over time as I think through these questions more. I fear I may have not stated myself / my attitudes about this well.

Disclaimers are a problematic thing, but there’s another, far more important one to deal with. I can’t not start this by saying that I know – or try to know, as well as I can – that I approach the subject of the problems around the category of “what is French” from a position of enormous privilege. I am white, of Christian descent, I have a (mostly) French name, I speak French with the accent of une française de souche (roughly: a from-the-land or in-the-bone Frenchwoman; more on this term in a moment). I “look French,” not just because I’m the “right” color but because my facial features are recognizably French to other French (“French”) people in the panoply of white western European ethnic types. (Oh boy, this post is going to be full of the scare quotes, isn’t it? I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.) I pass easily as “authentically” French to French who might worry about such things. I do not get asked where I’m from, for instance, unless someone has seen me pull out a foreign credit card, the person has been told I’m “only” half-French, or the question is about where I’m from in France. In other words, I will never be in what I imagine to be the infinitely worse, more painful and certainly deeply unfair position of those millions of French people who are at least as “French” as I am but who get pegged as foreign because of skin color, religion, language and/or name, and who, because of those factors, have little hope of seeing themselves broadly accepted as members of their own culture within the foreseeable future.

So, the disclaimer boils down to this: This post is about what it is to be French, yet not quite French enough. It’s about the (in)famous French love – if love is the word to use here – of trying to tightly define what is French and what is not French. It is entirely about my experience with this phenomenon, from the extremely specific point of view of a white Christian “French-looking” woman with the “right” accent who also happens to be half-American, Americanized on many levels, and thus in a position to be accused, everything else aside, of not actually being French. It is also about the experience of white Christian French expats like my mother, who leave the country, do not give up their cultural roots but do adapt to a foreign culture, then come back years later to be told that they are no longer French.

So, yeah. I won’t start in on what it means to be French, because I don’t know, and the topic has been the subject of une grande polémique (big debate, national discussion, read argument) for many years. I headed this post with that photo of the flags and La République and the motto because those things, to a whole lot of people, are supposed to sum up key elements of Frenchness: the Revolution, the rights of man and equal rights in general, the Republic, secularism (an idea pretty much inextricably tied to La République)… those are I think the major ones going on in that grouping of symbols, and they are really big deal ideas. But I won’t be discussing them much here (maybe later) – those are ideas that are more properly discussed in the context of the French polémique around race and religion and Frenchness, which is, again, not what I’m talking about.

I can only deal with this topic in a way that feels vaguely responsible to me at this point by making it as personal as possible. I explained my ethnic/cultural extraction in my last post, Entre Deux Chaises, so I won’t go over it again. I do think it’s worth repeating, however, that insofar as I’m French (and I will die defending my right to be French), I’m from the Auvergne.

Ici finit la France; Ici commence l’Auvergne. Iconic photograph by Francis Debaisieux, the producer of most postcards of any note from the Auvergne and a really fantastic photographer. One day I need to blog about ethnic differences among the white French, a real thing that adds an ironic twist to the barrage of xenophobia directed at certain people not perceived as French.

Auvergne is known among white French as, like most of the provinces but perhaps even more than many, full of français de souche. This last is a rightfully problematic term that is quite difficult to translate but would be something roughly like “ethnically French,” “of deep-country French [read: white] origin,” “natively [read: white] French”… all things boiling down to “the idea of white French people, mostly Catholic, descended from a mythically long line of other white Catholic French people stretching back past Astérix.” I use this phrase because I think it reflects in a useful way the myth of Frenchness that’s taken hold among many — most, I fear — white Christian French people who would either be recognized as part of this category or wish to be so (hi, Monsieur Sarkozy, so desperate to prove his own Frenchness). Many white French, I think – probably Parisians in particular (who are tacitly understood not be to be français de souche) — would vehemently deny that they wanted to be part of this category, because it’s associated with xenophobia and racism and the National Front, but that doesn’t change the fact that this category is fetishized by people like adherents of the FN because it represents the myth of Frenchness (the myth of Gaul, too).

Hey look, the Gallic myth! (Or whatever you wanna call it.) This struck me as a pretty good depiction of /part/ of the idea of “français de souche,” on a bakery in the 5ème arrondissement.

But I’m dithering, or at least moving forward very slowly. My main point here is that the pressure in this country and culture to be “French,” to be French enough, to get to exist in the category “French,” is so great that even someone like me — white, Christian (Catholic) descent, provincial accent, ethnically Breton/Auvergnat facial features, native-level command of a language fetishized by its people (who, I snarkily note, usually make even more mistakes than I do even if they don’t speak a word of anything else), etc — even someone like me feels pressured and hounded if something is going on like being bicultural or having been an immigrant or an expatriate somewhere else. Despite myself, I worry so much about how well I’m doing at being French that nearly every time a strange French person (of whatever extraction) in a store or in the street or wherever approaches me with the assumption that I am also French – which is EVERY TIME – I notice it and draw another line on some mental chalkboard: oof, I’ve passed another test. Once in a while (in both France and the States) I have discussions with French strangers in which I note that I’m half American – I feel compelled to note this if conversations last any length – but during the course of which the French person(s) forget(s) that I’m not entirely or just French; every time this happens I’m delighted, again despite myself.

And then I get into lengthier conversations with people, with my family or friends or whoever, and someone will come out, at some point, with a matter of fact “oh but you’re not French, you’re American.” I can’t put words on how that feels – and I didn’t even have to feel this pressure, in a sense; I could have chosen to give up the wanting-to-be-French, I could have chosen to simply be American (and Americans, despite arguing a lot over what is American, are, in the end, more accepting of certain kinds of differences; I think that’s just evident, despite all the ultra-racist tea party / minutemen f*ery; but that’s another post). …Except I’m not sure I could have. Everyone I know who grew up bicultural has, somewhere, a sadness or an anxiety tied to the idea of not being French, or not being French enough.

Then there are emigrants and expats. I watch my mother, who has spent more than forty-five years in the States now teaching French and French culture to Americans, and who strikes nearly everyone who knows her as a freakishly French little dynamo of energetic uber-Frenchness. She’s fiercely clung to her culture and her language – but she’s also got, *gasp*, air-conditioning, and drives a sedan, and can’t (since she’s, you know, not in France) magically stay tuned to the latest French argot (slang) or fashions or current events. I watch my incredibly French mother, who has spent her life spreading and promoting knowledge of this culture abroad, get told by French friends and family things (always said matter-of-factly, always dismissively, and never with intentional cruelty), “oh, mais toi, tu n’es plus vraiment française” (oh, you, you’re not really French anymore).

Given the pressure and grief I feel around needing and wanting to be French and missing France and the fear of losing France (I won’t even go into the messed up citizenship laws that would make it legal under certain circumstances for the French to take the citizenship I was born with or, in extreme circumstances, my mother’s) [SEE CORRECTION AT BOTTOM] – given all that, I can’t imagine how awful it is to have been born and raised in France, in a place like Auvergne no less – a place where it was unimaginable that a girl like my mother would do anything out of the norm, much less emigrate to a foreign country – I can’t imagine how awful it must feel. My mother is the brave sort; if we’re gonna go all ethnic stereotype, maybe we can say that she got some kinda Breton (read: British-influence) stiff upper-lip thing going; she says it’s fine; she even tries to say it’s true (believe me, it’s not). But I can tell it’s not fine. And I can tell it’s not fine when other French expats I know talk about the same thing, when people who found themselves living outside the territory for even a few years talk about how now people tell them they’ve become members of the other culture and aren’t French anymore. This is a form of verbal violence that the French commit on other French people without, from what I can tell, having any idea of the effect of what they are saying.

There is so much, so much more to say about this and to untangle, even in just the limited arena of talking about people who are or once were accepted as “French” by the white/Christian majority being thrown to some extent out of the category. I could talk, for instance, about pieds noirs, the children and grandchildren of colonists who went to Algeria; when Algeria drove the French back to France in the 50s, these people were greeted a bit like returning Vietnam War vets – except they had also been stripped of their cultural status. I have actually heard other French people say point-blank that pieds-noirs are not French. They are either colonists or the recent descendants of colonists; they speak French; they have never lost French citizenship; if they’re not French, what else are they?

MORE IMPORTANTLY: why can the category French not even hold as relatively slight a perceived “foreign” influence as someone (or someone’s family) having spent a relatively short period of time in another country? It’s horrifying enough that for so many the category “French” can’t hold different skin colors, or a woman’s wearing of a veil, or an accent that reveals Maghrebian ancestry, but I guess, insofar as I’m American, I understand the role of this kind of xenophobia and racism in the self-definition of oppressive majorities. I suppose I’m just continuously shocked (and I do mean continuously) by how much narrower the category seems to be here, by how easy it is to be shoved out of it or to fall out of it even if you or your family is/were solidly in it for decades, centuries, whatever – again, there are ways my citizenship could be taken from me that are tied up with culture (you can lose your citizenship if you are felt to have lost close enough ties to the culture, and no, it’s not really explained in much detail in the documents I’ve read).

And how much worse would the feelings involved be if I were a first- or second- or third-generation immigrant here, especially of non-white or non-Christian descent (not that other non-French whites are exempt from this problem), French by every sane definition of the term yet still the target of varying degrees of blame and fear and hatred from so many (not just the FN, not just Sarkozy’s UMP, but so many), and denied by so many the definition “French”? Or not an immigrant or from an immigrant family, but someone from a family which has been in France forever but who still doesn’t fit, in one way or another, the tricky, impossible-to-fully-pin-down criteria? (I’m think of l’Affaire Dreyfuss and France’s history with anti-semitism, and of the Roma, and of the many people of color from non-immigrant families, and, for that matter, of my own Spanish great-great-grandmother – how long did it take her descendants to establish they were French? – and any number of other people…)

I think that’s enough for now. Congrats if you’ve made it this far. I want to emphasize that this is a draft, and that, again, this is an extremely complex and problematic topic. I also want to say as a final note that – I can’t help adding this – I don’t think it’s as simple as just saying “a whole lotta French people are racist and xenophobic and that’s the long and the short of it.” A whole lotta French people are racist and xenophobic, but there are also historical elements at work I haven’t begun to touch on.

But there’s so much I haven’t begun to touch on. Anyway. Comments would be appreciated, and feel free to disagree with me or tell me if I’ve said anything fucked up (pardon my language, but I can only self-correct “messed up” so often). This post undoubtedly suffers from the fact that I do so little revising before posting, but I will revisit this topic, undoubtedly… and in the meantime, maybe getting this little fragment off it off my chest will allow me to post about smaller things easier to write about concisely in the medium of blog.

CORRECTION (25 September 2012):
Above, I wrote: “(I won’t even go into the messed up citizenship laws that would make it legal under certain circumstances for the French to take the citizenship I was born with or, in extreme circumstances, my mother’s).” The wonderful Hélène Crié-Wiesner (who you should go read if you read French) has corrected me on this point (see the comment threads). It would actually be extremely difficult for the French government to take either my or my mother’s citizenship from us, and it certainly cannot be taken away on cultural grounds (I believed it could because a bureaucrat lied to us about it a long time ago). This changes any conclusions I might draw about this topic insofar as the cultural category “French” and French citizenship are much less closely related (if they’re related at all) than I had originally thought.