Notes from Away: Je suis Français aussi
Wednesday, January 21, 2015 11:25 AM
PARIS. Recent events remind me how Miss Moore, our high school Latin teacher, made the class recite the description in the Commentaries of Julius Caesar of the country he had so famously seen and conquered.
Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres . . . Hi omnes lingua, institutis, legibus inter se differunt.
"All of France is divided into three tribes.... and these differ from each other in language, customs and laws."
The armies under Caesar imposed on these disparate tribes of ancient Gaul the laws, customs and language of Rome. In Paris today is spoken a decadent form of the Latin language. The centuries have eroded the clean edges of the words and grammar used by Cicero and Virgil, like ancient statues exposed in a villa garden, and left us with the nuanced and beautiful form of contemporary French.
After her foreign legion (a Roman word, unchanged) helped France colonize lands in North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East (formerly parts of the Roman and then Muslim empires), French priests and officials converted the peoples there (with only partial success) to Gallic forms of law and religion and (with much greater success) to the French language.
Now immigrants from those former colonies flood back across the Mediterranean into France. This unsettles many French people, who fear that new disparate tribes of modern France will "differ from each other in language, customs and laws."
The anxiety of France today is a question of self-definition. What does it mean to say Je suis Français - "I am French"?
For instance, will the remnant of Jews in France, after recent attacks on their synagogues and shops, abandon France for Israel? Will under-employed young people seek their fortunes in London, New York, Quebec or Shanghai?
And will the child of an Algerian or Moroccan immigrant, whose mother tongue may be Arabic, or the child of an immigrant from Mali or the Ivory Coast, whose mother tongue may be an African language - will that child grow up to see himself (or, crucially, herself) as not only a member of an Arab or African cultural tradition and a Muslim religious tradition, but also as a person who can say of themselves, "I am French also"? "Je suis Français aussi"?
The Irish poet Yeats, himself no stranger to civil strife and religious violence, wrote a prayer for his daughter, warning her that "to be choked with hate, may well be of all evil chances chief . . . an intellectual hatred is the worst."The immigrant parents of the young woman in the police photo, who likely was an accomplice to the Paris assassins before she fled the country, must have similarly prayed for their daughter, but their prayers went unanswered.
And so, France, once again in her history, is divided into three tribes.
One tribe defends an ideal "French" form of "secular life" against the perceived encroachments of an "alien" culture and a "totalitarian religion."
The second tribe, of recent immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, does not (yet) wish to become "French" as the first tribe would define "French," and does not (yet) feel welcome or well employed in France.
Members of these two tribes can fall prey to intellectual hatred, or dream of a paradise where the other tribe is excluded.
The third tribe of modern France is caught between the other two. It is composed of all who value their own traditions and also (aussi) tolerate the traditions of others. This third tribe is not choked with hate (though it must often swallow its fears) even though it may suffer many hateful attacks.
Charles de Gaulle, leader in exile of the Free French during the war with Nazi Germany, and later President of France during the murderous colonial struggle in Algeria, which he risked his life to end, wrote in his memoirs: "All my life, I have had a certain idea of France."
De Gaulle expressed his idea of France in the darkest times of the Second World War: "At the root of our civilization, there is freedom of each person, of thought, of belief, of opinion, of work, of leisure."
And later in the war, this great Charles (for he stood six feet five inches, and no one called him Charlie) made a radio broadcast to all who spoke the French language, whether in divided France or in Africa or in the Middle East: "At the end of our sorrow," he said, "there is the greatest glory of the world, that of the men who did not give in."
With some luck, and with a good deal of courage not to "give in," and with a more vibrant economy, the great middle tribe of a modern French nation may persuade those other two tribes to accept an idea of France based on both tolerance and freedom, and to affirm: Je suis Français aussi.
Stephen Harder is a resident of Rockport, living and working in China.