March 17, 2017 What does it mean to be French? Inherent in this question is a fundamental tension within French nationalism that is unique to France. One aspect of French nationalism is that it views itself as a universal program. This is best embodied by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This nationalism views French ideas about “liberté, égalité, fraternité” as equally important to what it means to be French as speaking French and living on French soil. In this sense, anyone who adopts these principles can be French, and anyone who becomes a French citizen is heir to these principles.
French nationalism was based on the idea that the nation was of paramount importance and was defined by class and a set of ideas about how society ought to be structured. All of the various factions in the French Revolution believed they were unifying the nation, but each faction had to exclude certain groups from the nation in order to define the whole. This has morphed far beyond the original exclusion of the aristocracy and has been used to exclude immigrants to France. The question that the National Front is posing is whether Muslims can truly be assimilated as full members of the French state.
This tension is at the very heart of France’s political project. Historically, France turns inward in moments of crisis, and after a period of chaos emerges unified and stronger. France is currently at the beginning of an inward turn. The country’s strategic position is weak, its economy is stagnant, and its society is divided. To learn more about how French presidential elections are a useful barometer for understanding France’s domestic position, check out or recent Deep Dive, “Nationalism and Elections in France.”