The Unity of France II: One Nation

Posted on April 6th, 2012 by

Every American knows the phrase “One nation under God,” yet few people realize that our country is not a nation in the strictest sense.  While nationcountry, and state are often used interchangeably, they are not the same.  A nation is a people.  They have a culture, a language, a history.  They might have a state.  For example, Jewish Americans are perfectly right to consider themselves part of the Nation of Israel.  This is different from the State of Israel, which they may never have even visited.

France came into existence before Christianity had been around for 1000 years.  Under kings, emperors, presidents, and even a dictator, France has become not just an old country, but an old nation.  Recently (if I understand correctly) French nationals living outside of French territory were given representation in parliament.  This way, every member of the nation of France has a voice in the government of France.

A while ago, I wrote rather harshly about religion in France, explaining that it is not allowed to cover your face in public.  This means that Muslim women are not allowed to dress as they like, if they wish to fully cover their face.  In that previous article, I offered an explanation for this law based mostly on religion.

But there’s more.  There is also an explanation in the societal unity of France that I hadn’t yet seen.  Just as the paradigm which rules the French state is one of unity, so too does the nation of France view itself as a powerfully united body of people.  As a country of immigrants, the United States is different.  Our culture is the canvas on which everyone has painted what they brought with them.  Our united identity is the fact of our diversity, and this helps explain why we are so affirming of individuality.

If our culture is a canvas on which to paint, French culture is a color of paint.  They have a territory, a language which comes from one of their kings of old.  They have traditional foods, drinks, names, and ways of living.  And none of these are based on the influx of immigrants from outside, but through the internal growth of their nation.  Besides equality, they also place high value on fraternity; not the kind where you drink a lot in college, but brotherhood.

Believe it or not, the law which prohibits covering the face in public can be seen by many in France as a kind of welcome.  It’s a question of showing people who are new to France how to live here, in equality and fraternity.  That fraternity requires being able to see one another’s faces in the street, and they don’t feel this is discriminatory, because that is how it was before anyone chose to immigrate here.

I don’t believe it occurs to the French that anyone would be interested in living here, without being interested in assimilation into the French nation.  I don’t mean this in a demeaning way, but as an observation of their perspective.  The French recognize they are a very small country.  There are so many other places where people could choose to live.  If someone chooses to live in France, it must be because France appealed to them; because they want to be French.  So, France helps them to be French.

Part of the oneness of France is that government and society are seen as part of one another (not opposing forces as Americans often see them).  So, they create laws which help show people how to live in their society.  They aren’t being uninviting, but the opposite.  “You want to live in France?  Oh how wonderful, well, here’s how you live, oh, there’s a good restaurant, there’s some great cheese over there, make sure we can see your face, and let’s make sure you know how to speak French.”

The sentiment is not one of hate, or racism.  I honestly do believe it comes from their sense of unity as a people, and the assumption that if you want to be part of the state, you want to be part of the nation.  France is an inviting country, they just assume a certain level of interest on the part of those they are welcoming.  I don’t speak to the effect of this sentiment, only the intention.

I think this also explains why some people report having such bad experiences traveling in France when they don’t speak French.  I do not believe it’s because French people are trying to be mean.  I think it’s because they fundamentally don’t understand why you would be interested in one part of France enough to visit it, but not interested in learning the language.  France doesn’t come in parts.  It’s a package deal.

This also explains why they get so excited about people who do speak and study the language.  I encounter nothing but enthusiasm when people find out I’m an American studying French here.  This makes sense to them:  I’m interested in all of France, not just bits and pieces.  So, I am greeted with warmth by both the state and the nation of France.



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