Of Croissants and Couscous: National Identity After the French Elections

Of Croissants and Couscous: National Identity After the French Elections

The French have a curious custom. Whenever the Cabinet changes, the names of the ministries change as well. This is theoretically linked to deep thoughts about theories of state and which functions are best connected to which rubrics, but for the average citizen, it looks like corporate reorganization and usually makes little difference. Most civil servants stay in the same office as the nameplates on the doors change.

However, the May 2007 government shuffle by the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, created a storm for several reasons. He seriously snubbed friends on the right by not including them in the inner circle while at the same time irritating the left by hiring away some high profile Socialists, notably Bernard Kouchner, who protested in a front-page advertisement in Le Monde that he remained a socialist at heart. Kouchner, the humanitarian interventionist organizer, was given the Foreign Affairs Ministry, but he lost control over visas and asylum. They are now jointly administered by a new and highly contested ministry with a long name: Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity, and Codevelopment.

As soon as the new ministry was formally announced, eight historians, including this writer, publicly resigned from the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration (CNHI). Since 2003, our group had been working on the project to open a national immigration history museum in France. However, the creation of a ministry that seemed to vitiate the purpose of the new museum forced us to speak out.

The CNHI project had been urged by historians and immigrant groups for some twenty years. Under Lionel Jospin’s presidency, the Socialists considered it, but never acted on it. In 2002, it was the center-right president, Jacques Chirac, who finally pushed it forward. The museum is scheduled to open this fall. Bringing together various experts to advise on different aspects of the project (the permanent exhibit, academic conferences, archives, pedagogy), the CNHI meetings had the secondary effect of becoming a lively place for exchange and collective reflection among the “historians” themselves (including, in fact, a political scientist and a demographer); immigrant-cultural groups; and Jacques Toubon, head of the museum project. The historians were at first wary of Toubon, a well-known man of the right and close collaborator of Chirac. (He was the architect of the 1994 “loi Toubon” legislating the use of the French language in public places.) However, his enthusiasm for the museum project, the free rein given to the advisory board, his continued support of the historians, and his determination to change the negative meaning of the very word immigration in France resulted in a mutual collaborative project.

Thus, the historians’ resignations were not against the museum itself. On the contrary, the point was to maintain the spirit of intellectual liberty and independence of the museum. Ind...

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