The Unity of France I: One State Posted on April 6th, 2012 by

Last week, I attended a political rally for incumbent presidential candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy.  Looking out on a sea of French flags waved by nearly everyone in the crowd, he pronounced his vision and goals for his second term in office.  For the most part his comments were not surprising, nor were they starkly different from the lofty tone and promises I would expect to hear from an American candidate.

Yet there did come a moment when I felt very much like an American in another country.  When speaking about education, Sarkozy addressed the need for a good education which not only integrates children into French society, but assimilates them.  Assimilate?

In the United States, assimilation is a terrible thing.  It means expunging someone of their character and turning them into carbon copies of everyone else.  It is a great crime against individuality and the identity of the human being.  It is a kind of subtle conquest that doesn’t involve killing people, but rather killing who they used to be.  Or at least this is our view.

But this is not the case in France.  In France, their politics often revolve around the question of unity.  It is here where the political philosopher Rousseau wrote about the need to eliminate all individual loyalties that might divide the people against each other.  He also championed the idea of the “common good,” and a common good can only be found if your country sees itself as one and indivisible.

It is hard for Americans to understand, because we come from a country which values individuality above this kind of common equality.  Our country is composed of immigrants, individuality, and very important differences.  We recognize a stark divide between our government and our society.  We have a plurality of governments, several capitals, dozens of boards, and different laws in different places.  The very title of our country is plural:  The United States.

From these divisions, we derive our concept of government:  balance based on tension between different groups and interests which act against one another.  This is the concept of Newtonian mechanics.  Newtonian physics says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  When I lean against a wall, it pushes against me, which explains why the last time I did this, it knocked me over.  Ok, not really.  But the idea is that forces balance.

So, Newtonian mechanics in government takes the divisions and disagreements natural to diverse groups of people, and pits them against each other.  The interests of North Dakota (all three of our congresspeople in Washington) push against the interests of Maine, against the interests of Texas, against the interests of Washington, and this creates an equilibrium which favors no one (at least that’s the idea).  The Supreme Court, the Congress, and the President are placed in tension as well.

France on the other hand is very unitary.  There is one capital.  If you look at a railroad map of France, almost all trains run through Paris, whether it makes for a direct route or not, because Paris is the heart of France.  There is one official language, and there is one people.  When there was a shooting in Toulouse in the south of France not long ago, Nicolas Sarkozy responded in affirmation of the unity of France:  “Those are not just your children, those are our children.”

Of course, everything comes from somewhere, and to better understand the unity of France, we have to understand some history.  Anyone who has played Risk knows that Europe is incredibly hard to hold onto, and that may in fact be the most realistic part of the game.  The only armies who have ever invaded the United States were other Americans who didn’t want to be anymore.  France has not had such a luxury in a couple hundred years, because they’ve been too occupied with outsiders invading: there’s no time for discord when you’re trying to maintain your existence.  In the time the US has been a country, France has been invaded, seen multiple regimes at the seat of their government, lived under the occupation of Germany, and fought over territory that bounced back and forth between them and Germany.

During WWII, the United States sent troops to Europe and Asia, feminized our labor force, and developed the nuclear bomb, all from the safety of our own country.  Meanwhile, Charles de Gaulle, the future leader of France, had fled to the UK.  From there, he broadcast a message on the BBC over to France, assuring them that they still existed as a country.  That’s not something easily forgotten in the memory of a people.  Before such experiences, unity may be a value, and a tradition.  After such experiences, unity is a political necessity.


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