Two Countries, One Debate: Who Are We?

What does it mean to be French, or to be American? We find that both our countries are oscillating between a definition of the nation anchored in its origins and a more cosmopolitan and futuristic perspective.
© Ferdinand Stöhr

What does it mean to be French, or to be American? Is it really an essential question? In the midst of a ferocious pandemic and a failing economy, the French president (infected with Covid-19 himself) found it necessary to contribute to the debate on identity via a long-winded interview with the magazine L’Express on December 17. The same preoccupation hovers over political and intellectual life in the United States, at a moment when a president elected mainly by white male nationalists is reluctantly conceding his presidential functions to one who appeals to diversity. Thus, we find that both our countries are oscillating between a definition of the nation anchored in its origins and a more cosmopolitan and futuristic perspective.

Our hesitation between these two identities, which often turns into confrontation, is not absolutely new, since the very title of this editorial – Who are we? – is borrowed from the American political scientist Samuel Huntington. In a book that bore this title, published in 2004, the author held that the United States is more than a nation, above all a civilization, and one that is white and Protestant. This definition is historically correct, but only if Native Americans and African-Americans are ignored; it leaves little room for newcomers. Donald Trump appropriated this view with, it must be said, the reliable support of almost half of America.

By contrast, Joe Biden, like Emmanuel Macron, takes the high road in relation to this restrictive identity by an attempted synthesis: national identity as the aggregate of specific identities. Macron seems the more eloquent on this theme, as he invites recent immigrants, notably of Arabic and African origins, to contribute alongside fellow citizens of older French descent in writing what he calls “the national novel.” Joe Biden’s appeals to the reconciliation of diverse cultures sounds more pragmatic, without the lyricism common in French discourse. But to each his form of expression.

There is a similarity between France and the United States: the tension between the past and the present, and the difficulty of reconciling losers with winners. This manifests itself in the United States in the controversy surrounding the Civil War, and in France by the polemics about World War II and colonial history. Emmanuel Macron, relying on a somewhat delicate distinction, therefore celebrates Marshal Philippe Pétain, a hero of World War I (a plaque on Broadway carries his name and commemorates the parade held in his honor by the city of New York in 1931), while deploring the same Pétain who was the servile ally of the Nazis during World War II. Should the French national novel therefore include both versions of Pétain, and should the Americans keep their statues of General Lee in place?

In this version, national identity would be defined as a sum of misfortunes, which may be historically accurate but psychologically indigestible. We may as well admit that neither the French nor the Americans have truly found the path that leads to reconciliation in the name of a unified, universally recognizable identity. In this debate, intellectuals and social activists such as those in the Proud Boys and Black Lives Matter movements are hardly more creative than politicians. They themselves are divided into partisans of white nationalism and apostles of multiculturalism, with little dialogue between the two camps. But, as the philosopher Pierre Bayard explains in the interview featured in the February 2021 issue of France-Amérique, nothing is ever completely true or completely false, and the truth of cultural imagination is just as legitimate as that of history.

Why is it that we feel compelled to undertake an acute questioning of national identity at this time in our history? Ten or twenty years ago, the dominant thinking dismissed this concept, assuming that it would dissolve under the pressure of globalization, the free circulation of people and of ideas, the mixing of cultures, and the extension of connectivity via the media. It was left to the American economist Francis Fukuyama, a great visionary of our time, to explain in his 2018 book Identity that it is precisely globalization and trade that cause the resurgence of ethnic, cultural, religious, or national identity: The French, like the Americans, are now separated less along ideological lines of right/left than in various ways by a new dividing line, as partisans of an open society or of a closed society, as adepts or as victims (real or perceived) of globalization.

Henceforth, Fukuyama explains, identity is the essential asset of “victims” – what American academic Peggy McIntosh called “white privilege” in 1989, a concept explored by African-American historian W.E.B. Du Bois as early as 1935. Macron took up this expression himself, conceding that white privilege, in the job market for example, was undeniable in both France and the United States – much to the fury of nationalists, who deny this reality.

I shall not venture here to take sides or suggest my own new synthesis, which is probably beyond reach. But we can understand why some Americans perpetuate nostalgia for a lost age that might be summed up by the paintings of Norman Rockwell, just as the memory of a baguette that is hand-made rather than thawed out in the morning haunts some French people. Let us accept as well that African-Americans cannot see themselves in Rockwell’s America and that the French of African origin feel excluded. They are. In reality, the debate over national identity is deceptive, an unacknowledged reflection of our social, economic, cultural, political, and religious divisions. And this debate can hardly have a satisfying outcome for us, because the debate itself is essential to our liberal societies. Our identity, whether French or American, consists precisely in debating our identity. We are who we are because of our controversies.

The national novel that Macron invites us to write – a term that resonates with great novels such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – is one that we are in fact writing every day. Just as identity cannot be defined in the singular from on high, so the development of our nations is nothing other than the sum of all of us and of our actions: We are all authors of the national novel. By its nature, it can only be full of sound and fury, and ever incomplete.

Editorial published in the February 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.