When French Identity Died

Emmanuel Macron, “True Frenchmen,” and the “Islam of France”.

Emmanuel Macron, President of France, caused a stir some time ago during his three-day visit to Denmark and Finland. In Copenhagen on August 29, he declared that there is no such thing as “a true Dane,” no such thing as a “true Frenchman.” He was widely criticized for this remark at home. What could he possibly have meant?

But let’s back up. Macron began last February by talking grandly about his intention to create an “Islam of France.” He promised he would roll out his plans after Ramadan ended in mid-June. In early July, in the pages of Le Monde, the plan drawn up by Macron’s collaborator Hakim El Karaoui, was published. It provides for the creation of an association managed by French Muslims that will train and pay the imams in France (no longer would they be trained abroad or paid by foreign Muslim groups or states), pay for the building and maintenance of mosques (thus replacing foreign governments), and manage communication between organized Islam and the state.

The most important part of Macron’s plan was the proviso that the mosques and the imams’ salaries would be paid from taxes both on halal food products, and on pilgrimages to Mecca. This plan was hailed by a few Muslims, but denounced by many others as an unacceptable interference by the Infidel state in the practice of Islam. Several months later, the plan has still not been implemented in the slightest way. What is Macron waiting for, or has he simply gotten cold feet? Or have very deep-pocketed Muslim states, with tens of billions of dollars in properties and investments all over France, such as Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Qatar, managed to get to Macron and explain that they might sell off some of those investments if the French state arrogates to itself the training of imams, and the financing of mosques? Whatever has been said behind the curtains, it appears that Macron has put his ballyhooed plans on hold. Islam in France is not yet becoming an “Islam of France.”

There are as yet no taxes on halal products, nor on pilgrimages from France to Mecca. Macron’s sleight-of-word has so far led to exactly nothing, except furious outbursts from French Muslims who declared Macron had no business interfering in the foreign funding of French mosques and imams.

In late August, Macron began to show his frustration. On a trip to Denmark and Finland, he roundly declared in Copenhagen that “there is no such thing as a ‘true Dane,’” there is no such thing as a “true Frenchman.” It’s difficult to know what he meant. When asked by a Danish student about the future of national identities in Europe, Macron added a bit more to his original remark, that “the ‘true Dane’ does not exist — he is a European.”

“Even your language is not just Danish — it is European. The same is true for the French,” he added.

What does this mean? Does it mean that the Danes speak their own language and then the lingua franca of the European Union, English? And is that what he means “for the French” as well — that they speak French but also the EU’s recognized common tongue, which happens to be the language of a country that won’t be in the EU much longer? And doesn’t a supra-national identity — i.e., that of being “European” — come only after, and builds upon, one’s national identity, i.e., being “French”?

Macron also praised Denmark as a nation which is “completely open to the rest of the world” compared with a France, whose people, he said, showed a “Gaulish stubborn resistance to change.” Possibly Macron is unaware that the Danes have been less “completely open to the world” recently, but have shown a distinct displeasure toward Muslims. Even the liberal and tolerant Danes have been mugged by Muslim reality. Denmark recently banned the niqab. Furthermore, the government has introduced new laws mandating that children living in “ghetto” neighborhoods (i.e., where Muslims predominate) must spend 25 hours apart from their parents every week. During this time, they’ll be taught “Danish values,” including Christmas and Easter traditions, and receive Danish language classes.

By regulating life in these neighborhoods, the government hopes to “Westernize” these children and immerse them in Denmark’s secular culture and society. They see it as protection of the many at the expense of the few. The penalties for non-compliance suggest that the Danes are fed up with Muslims who refuse to make any attempt to integrate into Danish society. Hence the children will be required to spend 25 hours each week outside their Muslim neighborhoods, learning the Danish language and “Danish values.”

Parents who refuse to cooperate will be fined and their welfare payments halted. The fact that these new rules target low-income, predominantly Muslim enclaves reflects the Danish government’s fear that the existence of insular Muslim communities will facilitate the development of extremist ideologies.

Even liberal, tolerant Denmark has been changing, faced with the reality of Muslim behavior, Muslim demands, Muslim crime, Muslim “extremism.” Macron’s praise of Denmark being “open to the world” shows he’s not been keeping up with the latest Danish response to its Muslim problem. And what business is it anyway of young Emmanuel Macron to lecture the Danes, insisting that there is “no such thing as a true Dane”? What chutzpah! What gall!

As for his comments on the French, he criticized his own people for the very thing many of us find most admirable: a “Gaulish stubborn resistance to change.” If France is able to save itself from the march of Islam, it will be precisely because of that “stubborn resistance to change,” based on a deep sense of national identity and pride, that Macron deplores.

What does Macron mean when he says there is “no such thing as a true Frenchman”? I think he is groping for a way to deny the very strong sense of national identity in France, so as to make it easier for Muslims, who will then not have to integrate into that strongly-held identity, but rather, into something approaching, Macron clearly hopes, a kind of all-embracing multicultural mush.

What does or should it mean to be a “true Frenchman”? It isn’t any one thing, but it’s a constellation of things, beliefs, and attitudes, certainties and uncertainties, born of knowledge of and intelligent affection for a particular place called France, and a particular people called French. There are no bright lines to define the “True Frenchman.” One needs to know a certain amount of French history. How much? That’s not possible to say. But if someone lives in France, but knows nothing of, and takes no interest in, and may even be irremediably hostile to, that country’s political and intellectual history, knows nothing or very little about Catholicism and the Gallican Church, about the Huguenots and the Wars of Religion, about the Divine Right of Kings, about the Court of Louis XIV, about the 18th century Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, Louis Philippe, the Paris Commune, about France in the two World Wars, the German Occupation, the Resistance, about French Colonialism and de-colonialism, about France as a member of the E.U. — then can that person be considered “a true Frenchman”? Probably not, even though we have not and can not specify any particular amount of knowledge that would qualify someone to be considered a “Frenchman.”

But what would one think of someone who, though he had spent his life in France, spoke and read only Arabic, knew nothing of French history and had no desire to learn about it, despised and dismissed French culture as “decadent,” rejected the French political system as elevating man-made laws over the Sharia, and believed, as the Qur’an teaches, that the French people among whom he lived were “the most vile of creatures,” while Muslims like himself were “the best of peoples”? Such a person is “French” only in a formal sense: he lives in France, and may even have obtained a French passport. But is he “French” in any larger and more meaningful sense?

A “true Frenchman” needs to know the French language, at least enough to understand and be understood in that tongue. He cannot exist stranded on a linguistic island. Some familiarity with French literature, French art, French music, French philosophy and political theory — these are the main components of a French cultural identity. A “true Frenchman” ought to possess some knowledge of the main currents of French intellectual life. The rights of the individual, including those of freedom of speech (as the criticism of Muhammad) and freedom of conscience (which protects those who want to change their religion either for another, or for no faith at all) must be both understood and accepted by the “true Frenchman.”

There is no particular amount of such knowledge that makes one a “true Frenchman,” but a complete absence of such knowledge makes it harder for someone to claim to be “French” in any meaningful sense. A person who lives in France but takes no interest in, or is hostile to, French history and French culture, who has no interest in the art, music, literature, history, religious beliefs, or politics of France, even while living on French soil, is not a “true Frenchman,” while someone who takes some interest in at least some aspects of French civilization, and is not irremediably hostile to France and the indigenous French, has that possibility.

Macron has chosen not to discuss, much less to offer tentative guidelines, as I’ve just done, as to what would adequately define a “true Frenchman.” He simply wants to avoid the issue altogether, in the most simple-minded of ways: by denying the possible existence of a “true Frenchman.” If there is no such thing as a “true Frenchmen,” then everyone in France can be French, and there is no need to wonder about how to “integrate” Muslims into a French identity that no longer exists. Muslims in France are already almost as French as they need to be, in Macron’s rosy view, and the only problem, for Macron, is making sure that “foreign states” do not build and maintain mosques in France, or train and pay for French imams. He does not see the problem as one of an ideology, Islam, irredeemably hostile to what makes France. Instead, he sees a problem only of foreign states paying for mosques and imams in France, and thereby encouraging “extremism” — an “extremism” which Emmanuel Macron has never dared to define, much less try to distinguish from orthodox Islam. His focus, as stated months ago, is on building French Muslim organizations that will train imams inside France, and on mosques that will be built and maintained by the French state, and imams paid government salaries, using revenues from taxes on halal products and on pilgrimages to Mecca.

Macron’s attempt to deny a “French identity” and the possibly of a “true Frenchman” has not won him any friends in France. Many French intellectuals — including large numbers on the left — have denounced this absurd claim. The French — if not Macron himself — are proud of being French. They do not dismiss this identity, but glory in it. Nor did Muslims in France express any particular satisfaction in Macron’s claim that a “true Frenchman” does not exist. They will pocket any concession or surrender, but offer nothing in return.

Macron might have simply said something much more interesting and provoking of thought: a tentative discussion of what kinds of knowledge and affection (linguistic, cultural, historical, political) contribute to the creation of a “French identity” — never mind a “true Frenchman.” He could have wondered aloud if there was any irreducible pemmican of knowledge that should be considered essential to such a definition. That would further discussion, rather than shut it down. He could have asked, too, if those who are taught to despise the Infidels (“vile creatures”) and all their works, who don’t know and don’t want to find out about, and are irremediably hostile to, French history and French culture, are for those very reasons not likely to attain a “French identity,” much less become “true Frenchmen,” under any definition. That, of course, is something Macron, and all the little macrons of this world, cannot possibly allow themselves to recognize.

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