How to Be French

Jeremy Harding

Last Thursday Nicolas Sarkozy gave a long speech at La Chapelle-en-Vercors. It was supposed to be in support of farming, but Sarkozy turned on his heel at the cowshed and launched into a lively exposition of French identity, republican identity, and the identity of everything and nothing. That’s a winning formula. Or it was in 2007 when he campaigned for the presidency on the same combination. It’s probably an opener for the regional elections in March 2010. Sarkozy may well be drawing a pension by the time anyone can say what this great piece of oratory about culture and values really adds up to. Is it worth the struggle? For those who don’t want to find out the hard way, here’s a 17-point résumé:

1. You’re really French when you grasp that the Girondins and the Jacobins were two sides of the same coin.

2. Yes, coins. Watch carefully while I spin another: heads is Christianity, tails the Enlightenment. Or wait, maybe I won’t spin it, I’ll just trouser it. Now I’m a rich man. France is rich in both traditions. Surely you see this.

3. We are not ambivalent, this is not French.

4. Oof! Identity and difference, diversity and singularity: the same and the other. It’s puzzled cleverer men than me for centuries. Black people are welcome in France.

5. I’ll be talking about more books in a minute, but I want to say in passing how much we owe to Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire. The term ‘métissage’ doesn’t bother me. I’ll say that again: ‘METISSAGE!’

6. Nonetheless I’m confident you’ll share my view that you’re only French when you don’t make a fuss about racial origins or religion.

7. Then again – and again – we the French have a special place in our culture for women and don’t like to see them subjugated in the name of anything.

8. Would the lady in the fifth row – it is a lady, isn’t it, it’s not a terrorist? – kindly take special note of my last two points while she removes her burka or makes her way out of the audience now?

9. Why are you all so hang-dog about France? We are a great republic and I’m your president. I tell you we must go out and wow them. I’ve put in my stint with a world-class marriage. Even so, we tend to forget our tradition as a nation of writers. Great works of literature. Great language. Time to revisit that. When I read a line from Racine or Baudelaire, or pick up a copy of Les Misérables, I get to feel seriously French. Perhaps you noticed a recent report in Le Figaro that I’ve been reading Proust – not the Pléiade edition by the way, but Le Figaro’s very own edition – look!

10. Wouldn’t it be great to found a Museum of History? Not some poky antique shop. The kind of place where we can all study history in the name of the future. Maybe I’ll do that.

11. I’ve come to like Malraux and his thing about Maisons de la Culture. That’s the future, or it was.

12. Another way to be French, and republican: know the difference between equality and egalitarianism. Equality’s a principle. Egalitarianism is a recipe for one huge, deadbeat hexagonal banlieue, from Brest to wherever. Plus it doesn’t solve injustice. To do that you have to give more to the people who start out with less. That’s why I’m against inheritance tax.

13. I believe in work. I believe in family. I believe in…

14. Stop! But I do believe in authority. And so should you. Believe in authority. Do that now.

15. Perhaps we can all agree on one striking fact: it’s 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down.

16. I still distrust speculative capitalism, and I’ll leave what I mean by ‘speculative’ to the museum of the future. I don’t believe in the ‘multinational corporation’ for that matter. That’s just a name for businesses making fuck-off money. The moment they’re in trouble they come squealing back to mama for a bail-out. At which point – ha! – we can all tell which country they belong to.

17. Think on these things, mes chers compatriotes. And you, the bloke in the burka with the bomb, it’s time to get identical and discover your feminine side.