AUTHORGina Bull Gina Bull graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2012 with a major in Culture and Politics. Originally from New City, New York, Gina studied abroad in Dakar, Senegal, and Paris, France, where she wrote for the Berkley Center's...
November 30, 2010
April 14, 2011
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Gina Bull on Political Identity in France
April 14, 2011 | 1 COMMENT
From the perspective of an American in Paris (by that I mean me, not Gene Kelly), the story is somewhat surprising, and somewhat familiar. The current president Nicolas Sarkozy is hugely unpopular right now, and Marine Le Pen has risen in part as an alternative. My 70-year-old host mother seethes in disgust at the television when the pundits (often) correct Sarkozy’s grammar. (I, on the other hand, sympathize with his struggles in the subjunctive, and like a wizened grandmother, tell stories of how bad we had it in the days of Bush).
And enter Marine Le Pen, empowered woman with radically right views who challenges the status quo and wins the populace. Sarah Palin, anyone? Realistically, though, the comparisons don’t go very far. The real reasons I believe that Le Pen’s popularity comes as a shock is that it threatens the identity of France as being not only a country upholding (definitely by American standards) very liberal values, but also, one that considers itself very rational and logical. I have the advantaged perspective of studying at Sciences-Po in Paris, the very highly esteemed university for political science (so esteemed they like to brag that Sarkozy flunked out). In French networks, Sciences-Po is the breeding ground, the starting line for the entire political world.
As an outside observer, it was interesting to see certain self-images of political France—ones that decidedly contrast with Marine Le Pen’s surge in popularity, for example. Firstly, I’ve had professors claim with complete certitude France’s exceptional attachment to revolutionary ideals, even that they are the one country best suited for Marxism. Secondly, that France is decidedly committed to “fraternité” and “égalité”; in class one student even said that France could not statisticize ethnicity in the banlieue (suburbs of Paris) because France doesn’t think in others, it thinks of everyone as French. While I definitely do not think that the “racist” stereotype of Parisians is necessarily true, I balk at the fact that France is color-blind—especially since the immigrant groups proliferate almost scientifically on metro lines as one leaves the center of Paris (it’s no New York where diversity is concerned). Without generalizing, I “problematize” (to use a favorite Sciences Po term) these claims of French identity.
Another quality I’ve noticed from Sciences-Po is the French love for precision and standardization. The first thing thrown at us in Orientation is the incredibly stringent attachment to methodology, namely in exposés, or oral presentations—down to the number of seconds of each part to the exact correlation of “parties” and “sous-parties” (two parts with each two or three sous-parties, vs. three parts with each two/three sous-parties: the age-old rivalry). Each class in Sciences-Po is required to include exposés, a fact I mention not just to summon your pity for my study-abroad experience (incredibly boring and incredibly stressful!), but because I honestly believe it’s of integral sociological importance. Sciences-Po students are bred to be skilled orators and synthesizer/simplifiers, preparing them for their political careers.
Moreover, it spreads into French culture as a whole—I’ll often see talk shows on television with large round tables, where each personality is required to give their own exposé. Even look at the French language itself: what is the subjunctive, but not a way of indicating opinions of doubt, opinion, or superlative as opposed to fact? The French love to be precise, and come from a position (contrary to American schools) where there really is an authoritative fact that comes from the well-established process of study.
Alas, this middle ground of rational established fairness is thrown a loop when the extreme right leader achieves the strongest popularity. I point out these contradictions not to criticize France (we certainly are not perfect in the States, and you’ll find hypocrisy wherever you look), but rather to engage my observations of the French political elite society. I was quite startled when my host mother, in responding to the spread of protest movements out of Egypt at how “civilized” and “cultured” Egypt is. As opposed to whom, I asked, what does “cultured” mean? (She didn’t understand my question, and proceeded to explain the word “culture” to me with “educated,” etc.). What bothered me most was her approach of certainty and righteousness, looking down at Egypt like an approving mother, bastion of liberty.
In the Western world, must we not take a better look at our own purported values? Parisians love to look at each other, and everyone encompasses the shared spectacle—evident anywhere from the metro, where people tend to stare and dress in standardized refined and presentable fashion, to cafés, which line up chairs directly in voyeur view of streets. In this time of worldwide political upheaval, it will be interesting to see what France comes up with, regarding their own political and social composition.
COMMENT FROM PETER JOHNS AUGUST 17, 2011
Gina, this is a very astute breakdown of the French political landscape and raises great questions about the social values in France (and the rest of the Western world, for that matter). Interestingly, a similar conflict exists in the average Chinese citizen; many classically proclaim that China is a society that looks beyond the individual, seeking a national identity. Most Chinese tend to be Han, yet China has more than 50 minority groups that live within its borders. Of course, Han Chinese are by far the most prevalent within government positions.
Walking around Beijing and interacting with the citizenry, you will continuously hear that the government is seeking to create a harmonious society throughout China--one focusing on the nation rather than the individual. However, in certain parts of the nation, the true light shines through: in places such as Xinjiang, where ethnic Uighars reside, or Xizang, where Tibetans can be found, the harmonious society truly breaks down. Han Chinese tend to look down upon minority groups, and the effect is magnified in these tense regions. In some cases, I witnessed such racial divisions even at children's sporting events. Regardless of location, it casts doubt on the harmonious society in the same way that Le Pen's rise casts doubt upon the espoused "color-blind" philosophy of many in Paris.