Politicians and institutions find it crucial to maintain a strong sense of nationhood by highlighting what makes a good citizen, teaching us to love our country, and that people from other places are in some ways fundamentally different from us. Most people grow up knowing where they are from and are proud of their nationality.
So why did the French government decide to introduce a new law making it mandatory for all primary and secondary classrooms to display the French flag? Is the French youth forgetting where they come from? Probably not.
It is unsurprising that the rule was introduced by a right-wing politician
It is unsurprising that the rule was introduced by a right-wing politician, which makes the question of why the government allowed the amendment to be approved altogether more interesting. More controversially, classrooms must also now display the lyrics to the French national anthem and the national motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”.
With much of the criticism predictable in its condemnation of being too nationalistic a policy, it is important to understand why the French government felt it necessary to take such steps towards placing national identity on the political agenda.
French voters maybe swayed towards the centre by superficial symbols of national pride
One reason could be to curb voters from leaning towards influential far-right figures such as Marine Le Pen, who beat Macron’s party in the recent European elections. A move such as implementing mandatory French flags may sentimentally appease Eurosceptic voters, giving them the feeling that the French way of life has not been forgotten by the enthusiastically pro-European government.
Much like the UK’s mawkish decision to return to blue coloured passports, French voters may be swayed back towards the centre by similarly superficial symbols of national pride.
However, what does this move say about national identity in the political sphere? It is nothing new to see politicians utilising patriotism and nationhood as a means to rally voters to their side. Therefore, what is unique in this situation is that what it means to be French is becoming more contentious to define.
No longer can politicians easily dismiss minority communities
No longer can politicians easily dismiss minority communities that exist and make up a large part of a nation. If one tries to find all the markers which encapsulate the perfect French citizen, there would be plenty of exclusion, disagreement, and the realisation that such a task is almost impossible. Is it language or accent? Is it ancestry? Is it race?
So, with a country as diverse as France, it would seem that the only way to bring everyone together and push forward nationhood without discrimination is through a Foucauldian panopticon of the ever-gazing French flag. Students from all backgrounds will be walking into the same class and see the same tricolore and revolutionary motto pinned on the wall.
Whoever you are, and whatever group of people you represent, the French government is telling you, through perhaps one of the only universally approved symbols of nationhood left, that you are firstly French; everything else is second.
Image: fdecomite via Flickr.