The French have began a process of reflecting on their national identity by asking what it means to be French in the 21st century. Ostensibly this is happening as a result of recent perceived issues with parts of the population that are felt to have not integrated into French society, at least as some see it. But it also appears uniquely French itself, in that it represents another way in which the French undergo a perpetual (it seems) analysis of their language and culture, their politics and ideologies, their people and beliefs.
A strength of a society (and its individuals) is calculated in its ability to accept and respond to criticism, to solicit it even. Inevitably, the Grand débat sur l’identité nationale (The Debate on National Identity) will attract criticism of the French. One thorny issue that appears frequently when considering French identity is the perceived conservative attitude to its language and culture.
The BBC’s ‘From our own correspondent’ outlines this single, but significant element, by expressing it as a desire of the French to embrace their own culture jealously, even at the expense of others:
The French collude in the over-praising for two reasons, one good, one bad. The good reason is that they are genuinely fond of their culture. […] One realises after a while that the French view their [celebrities] almost as members of the family. They enjoy going to see them in the same way they enjoy catching up with the latest family gossip.
The bad reason is that it is all about self-protection. Succumbing to sycophancy, after all, is a way of reassuring oneself that all is good in the world, when clearly it is not.
As an outsider and relative newcomer to the country, I’ve yet to form a picture of what it means to be French, but I’m learning a great deal (it wouldn’t be fair, either, since I wear rose-tinted spectacles having fallen for the place). I probably never will satisfy a complete conclusion but what I can say is that the national debate on what it means to be French appears to me a clear-eyed approach to learning more, good and bad, about itself.
And when you point such a focus elsewhere, it’s only a matter of time before the focus rests on you, and rightly so. I’m from the UK, so I wonder: what does it mean to be British? And by extension, what does it mean to be me, or be you, and where you’re from?