Nation Making: the Case of France








Clifton R. Fox

Professor of History

Tomball College

delivered to the

Raleigh Tavern Philosophical Society

December 4, 1997

Nation Making: the Case of France


Clifton R. Fox

Professor of History

Tomball College

delivered to the

Raleigh Tavern Philosophical Society

December 4, 1997


This paper deals with the idea of national identity. The theoretical construct which dominates modern thinking on the subject of large political and other issues is the idea of the "nation-state," which political scientists often trace back within European history to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The modern concept of the "nation-state" might be thought of achieving a kind of physical reality in the United Nations -- imagine the array of national flags fluttering above United Nations Plaza, and the rows of delegates sitting gravely in the hall of the General Assembly behind their nation nameplates, every member state equal in their sovereignty, if in nothing else. For us today, the very vocabulary of discussion often presupposes and requires the "nation-state" -- try discussing the world without phrases like "international relations."

Part of the intellectual baggage of the "nation-state" idea is the presumption -- promoted vigorously by existing governments -- that nations are natural units based on essential common characteristics such as race, religion, language, ethnicity [something of a tautology] or ideology. Linked to this presumption is the idea that "nation states" have come into existence due to the demand of the "nation" for autonomy from "foreigners," the process which Woodrow Wilson dubbed the "self-determination of nations."

The thesis of this essay is that nations have come into being by a quite different process than many people have imagined. The typical source of the "nation-state" has been, in fact, as follows: a small elite of educated and affluent people create the "national" idea, which does not otherwise exist; political opportunity grants this elite political control in a sizable area, and they then acculturate and indoctrinate the bulk of the population by employing the authority of their government. A nation has become successfully formed when the people who comprise it ceased to remember that their ancestors ever lacked the national identity or thought of themselves differently.

The nation-states which occupy seats in the United Nation might be classified according to their success to date in "nationalizing" their populations. Nation-states differ in the amount of time which they have had to impose national identity, and in the resources available to do the job. A nation-state which cannot fund an educational system, for example, will stand at great disadvantage, while other nation-states are fortunate to possess successful economics which serve as nationalizing forces without direct government intervention. Some governments, of course, fail to nationalize, in whole or in part, their populations; some governments actually succeed in encouraging "counternationalisms" among some groups within the population. The critical point which needs to be stressed, is that nations are not "natural units." France is not France because there is a patch of ground where "the French" have long lived. The French did not invent France; France created the French.

Myths of national identity are often used to justify political actions, and it is this tendency which needs to be remembered. National identity is one of the class of constructs which some scholars call "invented traditions." In an "invented tradition" a current idea is justified by endowing it which a long history, part of which may be authentic, but part of which is cobbled together on the premise that the older something may be, the truer, the more natural, the more venerable and the more permanent it is.

In discussing the idea of national identity as an invented tradition, it seems useful to discuss a single case in order to limit this paper to an appropriate length. The case which I have elected to discuss is France, partly because of my familiarity with French history, but partly also for a second reason which is more compelling. In a general way, it seems fair to suggest that if any "nation-state" on earth is a true "nation" in a pure sense, France would stand as an excellent, perhaps the best, candidate. If French "nationhood" is "an invented tradition," then other nations in the world must be even less "real."



The French Path


Let us begin at the beginning, as far the written record permits. Centuries before the Christian era, Greek travelers reached the Mediterranean Sea of coast of France. Here the Greeks founded the city of Massilia [now Marseilles] and built [or rebuilt an older Phoenician site] a shrine to Hercules known as Heracles Monoecus [now Monaco]. The Greeks left the first written accounts of the peoples who lived on the French portion of the Mediterranean Sea coast. The Greeks called the natives "Keltoi," and counted them, like all non-Greek peoples as "barbaroi" [barbarians].

Later, the Romans came into the picture. In the third and second centuries BC, the Romans had conquered the area which we think of as northern Italy, but which the Romans regarded as non-Italian, and called "Gallia," its pre-Roman inhabitants called themselves "Galli," or so the Romans said. When the Romans crossed the Alps into France, they found people who spoke the same language and observed the same customs as the people which they had already conquered. The Romans called these people [whom the Greeks had called "Keltoi."] "Galli" also, and later extended the name "Gallia" to cover a vast region extending to the Rhine River, the English Channel, the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrennes Mountains. The Romans distinguished "Gallia Cisalpina" [Gaul on this side of the Alps, in northern Italy] from "Gallia Transalpina" [Gaul across the Alps, in France].

Although a small portion of "Gallia Transalpine" had been made a Roman province in 121 BC [what is still called "Provence," the Province], Gaius Julius Caesar, later Rome’s dictator, conquered the balance of "Gallia" for Rome in a series of campaign between 58 and 50 BC. In some sense Caesar not only conquered Gallia, he also invented it in his account of the Gallic Wars known as CAESAR’S COMMENTARIES. At the start of his COMMENTARIES, Caesar defined the boundaries of Gallia to coincide with the lands which he had actually occupied, although Caesar made clear that Galli were not one people at all, nor their land one country. Caesar distinguished the Celtae -- same as the Greek Keltoi, and "true" Galli in Caesar taxonomy -- from the Aquitani and the Belgae. These people differed from one another in "languages, institutions and laws." Both the Celtae and the Belgae fit into the broader linguistic classification [unknown in Caesar’s time] of the Celtic family. The Aquitani, on the other hand, spoke a tongue ancestral to modern Basque or Euzkadi. A fuller reading of Caesar’s memoirs also makes clear that the "Galli" were actually a collection of diverse tribes, and not sharply differentiated from other peoples, such as the "Germani," who Caesar placed beyond the Rhine River. For example, Caesar noted some Galli looked like Germani and spoke Germani, but he insisted that they were still Galli.

The concept of Gallia proved useful for Caesar, and for Romans long afterward. Gallia existed as an administrative division of the Roman Empire for five centuries with its capital at Lugdunum [modern Lyons]. The geographer Ptolemaeus, writing at the start of the second century, counted Gallia as one of the main subdivisions of Europe. The population of Gallia became largely Romanized, adopting the Latin language and Roman customs. In addition, an unknown admixture of Roman colonists from Italy and elsewhere combined with the original Celtae, Belgae and Aquitani. The people of Gallia came to see themselves, for the most part, as Romans, speaking a local form of Latin, but also as Galli. The name of Gallia, and identity of people there as Romans and Galli endured long after the end of the Roman Empire, not disappearing until the Middle Ages.

The concept of Gallia and the Galli came to form an important part of modern historical mythology in the nineteenth century. Many in France started to reassess the French Revolution of 1789 as a racial conflict: the common people of France were the Galli [les Gaules] and the nobility were the Franks. The Third Republic, established in 1871, pressed the idea in its political rhetoric, in school textbooks and elsewhere, the Galli were the "true" France by dint of racial ancestry. Ancient heroes such as Brennus and Vercingetorix were elevated to high status, and their "republican" character was emphasized. The contrast between Galli and Germani was elevated to an article of faith, which fit into the rivalry with Germany which began after German unification in 1871. The obsession with the "Gallic race" also helped contribute to the anti-Semitism of France in the era of the Dreyfus Affair. In more recent times, the French have savored their "Gallic" identity in the comic book character Asterix.

For decades, the standard textbook of history in French secondary schools began with the words, "Our ancestors, the Gauls..." These words were read throughout the French-speaking world from Saigon to Dakar to Montreal. France stands as a classic case of a government employing its educational system to shape a nation by inculcating a certain view of history.

Although no one in the time of Caesar could have imagined it, the Roman conquest of Gallia decided the religious future of France. Christians idea reached France without great difficulty across the Mediterranean Sea routes which Roman power protected and secured. Christians can be identified in Gallia from the second century as victims of persecution in the reign of Marcus Aurelius [reigned 161-180]. Later, Emperor Constantine I [reigned 306-337] legalized Christianity, and Theodosius I [reigned 379-395] banned the pagan gods altogether in favor of the new faith from the East. In the century after the death of Theodosius, the Roman Imperial administration declined and disappeared in Gallia. Many Gallic Romans clung to Christianity as the last tangible connection to the lost stability of the Empire. How ironic that the Empire which had persecuted Christians, now depended on Christianity to perpetuate its legacy!

Late in the fifth century, King Clovis I, ruler of the Germanic tribe called the Franks, converted to the Catholic faith and renounced his old tribal gods. Who were the Franks [Franci in Latin]? The Franks were a confederation of Low Germanic tribes which had lived west of the Rhine river beyond Roman authority; the name Franci meant "free." The Franks spoke their own language, Frankish. Modern writers often say that the Franks were Germans [the Romans classified them as "Germani"], but it is really a mistake to impose modern categories on this early period. Besides, Frankish, as a Low West Germanic language, stands closer in linguistic classification to Dutch or even English than to modern German, which is a High West Germanic language.

The Franks entered Gallia after a long preparatory period. The Franks first invaded Gallia in the middle the third century at a moment of instability in the Roman Empire. Although the initial invasion was repulsed, some Frankish settlers were left behind in Gallia. The Romans admired the warrior qualities of the Franks, and soon many individual Franks enlisted in the Roman army. Emperor Constantine I protected himself with Frankish bodyguards; within two more generations, Romanized Franks were holding important government positions. Emperor Theodosius I allowed his son to marry a Romanized Frankish woman.

In the middle of the fifth century, a large Frankish tribe led by one Childeric fought as allies of the Roman Army against Attila the Hun at the Battle of Chalons. After the defeat of Attila, the Roman commander Aetius granted Childeric’s people the right to live on Roman territory, just south of the salt marshes of the estuaries at the mouth the Rhine and Meuse Rivers. Childeric’s people came to be called "Salian Franks" [Salty Franks]. The family of Childeric claimed hereditary royal power; Childeric father had been named Merovech, allegedly the son of sea monster, and the family became called Merovingian. Clovis I, the Frankish king who became Catholic, was the son of Childeric.

Clovis built his kingdom of the Franks on the ruins of the Roman province of Gallia. Clovis and his successors [the Merovingian Dynasty] took every advantage of their Catholic affiliation to establish themselves as the natural protectors of the people. Pious legend reports that St. Remigius [Remi], bishop of Rheims had not only baptized Clovis, but also anointed him king with sacred oil which a dove from heaven had brought. Rheims remained the coronation place of the French kings until 1830.

In the generations after Clovis’ death in 511, Latin chroniclers [the only written record available to us] often referred to the lands ruled by the Franks as "Regnum Francorum" or "Francia." Still, the Merovingian kings themselves did not think of their domains as a single unit. Each male descendant of Clovis in the male line imagined himself entitled to be an independent King with his own part of Francia as his personal realm. At times, as many as four Merovingian kings ruled at one time. The kings, although kinsmen, warred constantly with each other.

The Frankish kings and their fellow Frankish warriors remained apart from the Gallic Romans over whom they ruled. The Franks and Romans not only spoke different languages, but also were judged by different laws. The Franks governed by the legal theory of legal personality: every person was entitled to be judged by the laws of his ethnic group. Therefore, someone’s personal identity as a Frank or Roman or something else remained of great importance, more significance than obedience to this or that king.

The Merovingian Dynasty declined in the seventh century to become figureheads manipulated by powerful noble houses. The most successful of these noble houses, known as the Carolingians, eventually replaced the Merovingians. After several generations of actual power, the Carolingian Pepin the Short assumed the royal title with the consent of the Pope in 752. Pepin the Short’s son Charlemagne went one step further: in 800, Charlemagne assumed the title of Emperor, crowned by the Pope. He considered himself the successor of both Clovis and Caesar.

Before proceeding, an important point need be made. In this essay, reference has been made to Clovis and Charlemagne, but the reader ought to be aware that these names are French medieval fabrications which tend to "Frenchify" the names of people who were not French in any modern sense. Consider Clovis. In contemporary Latin texts, his name was spelt "Hlodovicus," with the "Hl" representing a harsh guttural sound unknown to classical Latin. In Frankish, [although no correct spelling of a language which was not written can be found] the effect was harsher still by ending the name with hard vowel: Hlodovik. By calling him "Clovis," we are, in a sense, falsifying the identity of Hlodovik the Frank, turning him into Clovis I, first King of France. In the case of Charlemagne, a similar effect is find. The form "Charlemagne" was not used in his lifetime. In Latin, his name was "Carolus;" in Frankish, "Karl." How could any patriotic Frenchmen honor kings called which such guttural names as Hlodovik and Karl? What is certain, of course, is that the Franks entered Gallia Frankish in favor of the language of those that they had conquered. One cannot draw a hard and fast rule as to when Franks became French. In Latin, "Rex Francorum" meant King of the Franks or of France, depending on the date. In modern German, France is still Frankreich [Frank Realm]. To the medieval French kings, and later, the problem of language and terminology did not loom large: the existence of a continuous tradition of political authority dating back to Clovis and St. Remigius mattered.

The Carolingians who followed Charlemagne divided his Empire much as the Merovingians had divided theirs, along the Carolingian realm covered a wider area, much larger than old Roman Gallia. Francia in the ninth century stretched from the Elbe River to the Ebro River in Spain, and included Italy as far south as Rome. By the end of the ninth century, two stable and enduring Frankish kingdoms had emerged out of the welter of dynastic rivalry: West Francia and East Francia. West Francia included the old Roman Gallia, while East Francia emerged on the Rhine River and eastward. The Carolingians disappeared from both Frankish Kingdoms in the tenth century.

East Francia passed into the hands of kings who were Saxons, not Franks. The Saxons spoke another Low West Germanic language. The Saxon kings succeeded in transforming East Francia into the Holy Roman Empire. Once the name "East Francia" became obsolete, "West Francia" became simply "Francia."

The throne of West Francia or, simply, Francia passed in 987 to the Capetian Dynasty, which ruled until 1328. The Capetians had begun their ascent to power as Count of Paris appointed by the Carolingians. The Capetians established Paris as the French capital. The loss of Germanic speaking lands beyond the Rhine River also meant the end of a distinct Frankish ethnic identity within Francia in the old Germanic sense. Everyone in Francia now became Franci [French].

Nonetheless, one must recognize that the Kingdom of France around the year 1000 did not resemble a state in the modern sense. Power rested in the hands of the nobility; they rendered homage to the king as their lord to be sure, and they obeyed him more often then not -- provided he asked for little. In this sense, the identity of the "French" must be seen as problematic. Medieval people within called the King in Paris "Rex Francorum" [King of Franks or French], not King of France. The geographic designation meant not the entire kingdom of France, but the area around Paris where the writ of the king counted the most, the area still called the Ile de France. Was Normandy part of France? Normandy possessed her own duke, a vassal of the French king: the duke had a directly relationship of homage to the king, which made the Duke of Normandy into a French lord. However, a peasant in the Norman field, a merchant of Rouen or a knight from the Calvados called himself Norman, not French. France was identified with her kings; to be French meant, above all, loyalty to the king. In the feudal period, parts of France ruled by independent vassals were not thought as France by their inhabitants. Identitiies such as Norman, Burgundian and so forth meant more than a French identity as such.

The keynote of medieval France was diversity. Language illustrates the point. The French language is classified as a Romance language, grouped with Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. The Romance languages are rooted in Latin, the language of the Romans. Latin came to France with the Roman conquerors. Languages of the Celtae and Belgae were completely eliminated by the late Empire. Modern Breton is classified by modern linguists as a Celtic language, as were Celtae ["true" Gallic] and Belgae, but Breton derives from a migration of people from Britain who fled the incoming English or Saxons in the fifth and sixth centuries. Latin also reduced the scope, but did not eliminate, the Aquitani, whose language is represented by the modern Basque or Euzkadi.

Not long after the Latin became common speech in Gallia, the spoken form began to diverge both from written classical Latin and from the spoken language of Italy. Contemporaries spoke of "vulgar Latin," and later, of "Romance." Since Latin continued as the dominant written language until after 1000, the forms of "Romance" varied from place to place in France. In truth, Romance was a family of languages, not a single tongue. The first form of Romance to acquire a notable literature was the language of Provence in southeastern France. Provence and other parts of the south were much in advance of the rougher north of the country. One should add that until the mid-11th century, a separate Kingdom of Burgundy existed which included Provence; it could have become the nucleus of a future nation, although it did not.

A strong distinction between the Romance dialects of North and South existed into modern times. Southern dialects were called La Langue d’Oc, and Northern dialects were called La Langue d’Oil. The words "Oc" and "Oil" were the words for "yes" in each language: the modern "oui" had not yet entered into use. The term "French" in the sense of a language referred to the language spoken in the royal domains of the Capetian Kings around Paris, Ile de France.

The kings in Paris aspired to rule in fact all the lands and peoples which comprised "Francia" in the extended sense. Philippe II [1180-1223] took the major step of defeating his most powerful vassal, the line of Noman Dukes who had also become Kings of England in 1066. By the time Philippe II completed his campaigns in northern France, the only major French fief left to the English King was Aquitaine or Gascony in the southwest. Nonetheless, France’s struggle with England had just begun. In 1328, the Capetian dynasty ended with the death of its last king without direct male heir. The powerful nobles of France rushed to Paris, and arranged the coronation of a cousin of the Valois family. The House of Valois would occupy the French throne until 1589, but the elevation of the Valois involved ignoring the claim of the King of England [and Duke of Aquitaine], who had been a nephew of the deceased monarch. The upshot of this was the Hundred Years’ War [1337-1453].

The Hundred Years War ended with France unified, but exhausted. The greatest French hero of the long struggle was Jeanne d"Arc [Joan of Arc]. In modern times, the French Republic, in a school curriculum which celebrated "our ancestors, the Gauls" over the Germanic Franks, also confronted its strained relationship with the Church by exalting to the position of Jeanne d’Arc to a preeminent position. On one level, no French Catholic could object to her: a pious saint who had led French troops against a foreign enemy. Nonetheless, Jeanne d’Arc’s story also included the fact that a peasant girl had to buck up the courage of a callow and feckless king, and that the Church betrayed Jeanne d’Arc, called her a witch and burned her. In short, Jeanne d’Arc served as a subtle symbol of republican virtue when more obvious figures were too hard to accept in minds of conservatives.

If we return to the fifteenth century, we find the Valois Kings rebuilding France to create the Renaissance France which Leonardo da Vinci knew in the sixteenth century. The theory of "absolute monarchy" came into being. Certain kings were exalted as heroes: Clovis, Charlemagne, St. Louis, Henri IV, Louis XIV. Still, even after the unification of France, local loyalties remained strong, and the kings permitted provincial laws, institutions and traditions to survive. On the eve of the French Revolution of 1789, France existed not as a nation, but as a collection of separate jurisdictions. The king in his own person unified the provinces by ruling them all.

The Kings, first Valois, then Bourbon [from 1589] defined themselves as the center of France, culminating with Louis XIV [ruled 1643-1715], "la Roi Soleille," [Sun King]. Under the leadership of Cardinal Richelieu, L’Academie Francaise was organized to "purify" the "French language." Needless to say, "French" in the linguistic sense meant the dialect of Paris. Other forms of Romance speech were condemned as "patois" [country speech]. Nonetheless, the forms of language actually spoken did not become standardized until much later.

In the sixteenth century, the main threat to French unity came from the Protestant Reformation. Consequently, the Kings emphasized the Catholic character of France. In a great extend, this identification of France with the Catholic was not new. The kings had long employed the Church to legitimate their own role, and to contrast themselves to their enemies. The Muslims from Spain, and later of "Outremer" in Crusader times; medieval Jews in France; pagan Vikings, Albigensian heretics; Protestant Hugenots, and Enlightenment "philosophes" were all condemned as enemies of the faith. The Emperor Charlemagne and King Louis IX [St. Louis], both canonized by the Church, were symbols of France’s connection to the Church.

The French Revolution of 1789 meant the end of monarchy, and it also challenged the authority of the Church. The Church became tied to the French monarchy to the degree that in the French Revolution, revolutionary forces were unavoidably hostile to the Church, ranging from the merely anti-clerical to the militantly atheist. Opposition to the Revolution from peasants, who had little stake in the old order, exploded in fierce rebellion throughout the 1790’s, notably in the Vendee. The motivation of these peasant monarchists was religious -- to defend the faith against the Jacobin "cult of reason." Order did not return until Napoleon Bonaparte signed the Concordat of 1801 with the Pope, restoring the role of the Church. Napoleon himself believed in no god [if we exclude himself], but he believed France ungovernable without the legitimacy conferred by the Catholic Church. Napoleon coined the term "ideologue" [intended as a term of abuse] to describe people who believed that systems of political ideas -- liberalism or socialism -- could substitute for religion in the eyes of the common people.

The survival of France depended upon the idea of the "nation" as a replacement for the lost monarch. The abstract idea of "nation" was too difficult to grasp for many ordinary people to accept. Napoleon I and Napoleon III both owed their ascendancy to the needs of people for the heroic leadership of one man. Napoleon I established the very centralized administrative which ended France’s local legal institutions; Napoleon’s Code Civile became one of the cornerstones of modern France. Not everyone found the Napoleonic Code an adequate source of identity. For many in France, the Catholic church became the substitute for the lost monarchy. Bastile Day [July 14, 1789] did not elicit universal celebration; the feast of St. Louis [August 25] stood higher in true Catholic hearts. The Catholic Church remained monarchist and hostile to Republicanism.

In the decades after Napoleon’s fall in 1815, France continued to endure political turbulence. Liberals and socialists, both opposed to the Church, sought power and sometimes grasped it for a time, but the Catholic Church remained established under the terms of the Concordat of 1801. In 1871, the establishment of the Third Republic marked the definitive victory of republicanism and democracy, but liberals and socialists still could not rule without conservative [i.e. Catholic] republicans participating in the new power structure. The Church could not be directly challenged.

Still, France’s Catholic identity seemed to be ebbing under the Third Republic. In 1890, the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris announced that Catholics should "rally" to the existing government of France as long as it respected the Church. In the 20th century, conservative French have continued to respond to "the rally:" Charles DeGaulle’s political party, now led by Jacques Chirac, is the "Rally of the French People." In the 1890’s, the hard-line-conservative French Catholics seemed despairing -- the last Bourbon heir had died in 1883, their own Church had deserted them in the name of "the rally." Where could they turn?

In the 1890’s, came the Dreyfus Affair. Needless to say, this complicated story is most often told in the context of anti-Semitism, which is by no means wrong, but something must be added: the anti-Dreyfusards were often people for whom the "honor of the army" had replaced both the Bourbons and the Church as a fixed star of identity. Both the anti-Dreyfusards and the Dreyfusards saw their struggle as a contest for French identity; Dreyfus was no more than an unwilling symbol: the man himself seemed besides the point. "Had Dreyfus not been Dreyfus, he would not have been a Dreyfusard," complained his own supporters. In a large sense, Dreyfus was besides the point. Dreyfus did win his freedom, but more important for France: in 1905, the Concordat of 1801 was ended. Church and State were separated: the ideologues and the Revolution had won in their battle with the forces of the past.

The Third Republic [1870-1940], of course, possessed no heroic leaders, no substitute kings. The leaders of the Third Republic were an endless parade of mediocre premiers and presidents. Instead, the idea of the "la Republique" itself became a part of French identity. For Charles de Gaulle, a man of conservative views and authoritarian instincts, France could nothing else except a Republic.

Of course, the old royal idea remained alive in France long after 1789. The Bourbon Restoration of 1815-1830 was followed by the liberal Orleanist variant of monarchy. In the twentieth century, the French fascist movement known as L’Action Francaise, led by Charles Maurras, regarded itself as the modern successor to old style monarchism: the youth movement of L’Action Francaise called itself "Les Camelots du Roi," the "Street Vendors of the King." French royalism became transmuted to fascism for a simple reason: after the death of the last Bourbon heir in 1883, the remaining Orleanist heirs were, ironically, too liberal to satisfy the unreconstructed monarchists. Many of those who from L’Action Francaise staffed Petain’s collaborationist Vichy government; echoes of the Maurras movement can still be found in the National Front of Jean-Marie LePen.

The Republicanization of French identify depended on the universal system of education imposed under the Third Republic over the stern opposition of the Catholic Church. In history textbooks and classroom instruction, Republican textbooks extolled the people, and deprecated the monarchy. As in many countries, unscientific concepts of race were freely promoted to support ideas of national identity. In applying the concept of "race" to nationalism, it is important to eliminate several common misconceptions. First, the biological realities of race, whatever they might be, are of little consequence compared to what people believe. Moreover, since scientists [much less any other else] knew next to nothing about genetics before the present century, discussions of "race" in the nineteenth century proceeded without any evidence which could stand to modern scrutiny.

If nineteenth century European discourse often revolved around ideas of "blood and soil," then geography must be added to history as a major element. Schoolbooks were written to promote the idea of France as a natural unit. In the geography texts of French schools, France has been immortalized as "L’Hexagon," the six-sided country: the English Channel, the Bay of Biscay, the Pyrennes Mountains, the Mediterranean Sea, the Alps and Rhine, and the northeast border with Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany. Needless to say, the modern borders of France are not a natural phenomena, but the product of historical development. Still, the thrust of nationalism is to read the present nation back into the past.

France today is undergoing new challenges to national identity. The grow numbers of ethnic minorities, notably Black Africans and Muslim Arabs; the growing assertiveness of traditional minorities, such as Bretons, Corsicans and Basques; the increased power of regional government, established in the last twenty years; the integration of France in the European Union; all of these factors leave France with uncertainties which could hardly have been imagined a few decades ago.



Comparative Perspectives


The historical experience of France stands as a case study of nation-making. Most of the members of the United Nations have not been able to construct themselves into the mold of nationhood to such a degree as had France. One might attempt to assess the degree of nation-building in any particular case by measuring certain objective factors, although one cannot claim that the importance of any given objective factor can be asserted without reference to the historical context. Nonetheless, a preliminary list of objective factors can be drawn up. For example:

1] Race or nationality: do the people think that they are descended from a common biological ancestry? or, more vaguely, share a common culture?

2] Language: do the people speak and write the same language?

3] Religion: do the people profess the same religion?

4] Ideology: do the people share a political philosophy?

5] Political continuity: does the state have a long continuous existence? Under the same constitution? At the same capital city?

6] Territorial continuity: has the state controlled the same territory across a long period of time?

The analysis of objective factors of nationalism often produces interesting results as one scans the world, and applies this method. Often times, those attempting to create a nation can emphasize different aspects of national identity, with complex results.

Consider Iraq, a nation of some concern to the outside world in recent years. What is Iraq’s national identity? If Iraq is an Islamic nation as a primary identity, then one ignores the large Christian minority, and the division within Islam between Sunni and Shi’ite. If Iraq is an Arab nation [a linguistic/cultural classification], then the Kurds of northern Iraq would be excluded. The present Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein does, in fact, define Iraq as Arab, the results for the Kurds have been decidedly tragedy. In addition, Saddam Hussein’s political party promotes the secular ideology of Ba’athism, an ideology created by Christian Arabs in the 1920’s. Part of Iraq’s problem arises from the fact that the boundaries of Iraq were drawn by the British after World War One to reflect British, not Iraqi interests.

Whenever a nation’s identity is unclear or complex, arcane debates on historical issues carry powerful emotional weight. Consider the efforts of former Soviet republics to "reclaim" [or invent] national identities. The Ukrainians, for example, insist that the principality which kept its capital at Kiev from the 9th to the 13th century was a Ukrainian state, not Russian, as traditional accounts assert. The Russians, of course, seem not likely to concede the Kievan state to Ukrainians, particularly since Prince Vladimir of Kiev’s conversion to Christianity in 989 stands as the origin point of the Russian Orthodox Church. In fact, many scholars contend that Vladimir and his dynasty were Swedes who imposed their will on a Slavic peasantry. In Soviet times, arguing that Vladimir was not Russian could get a young scholar banned from the historical profession, as with the dissident Andrei Amalrik. Meantime, in Uzbekistan, the present government is renovating the bloodthirsty 14th century conqueror Tamerlane into a national hero on the model of Mongolia’s modern exaltation of Genghis Khan.

In Russia itself, much debate surrounds the question of "who is Russian?" The Russian language was too different words to describe the people: "Russki" strongly implies Russian Orthodoxy and the Russian language, while "Rossiyia" is more inclusive. In Russian politics, whether a politician speaks of "Russki" or "Rossiyia" says much of his tolerance of Russia’s Muslim, Jewish and other religious minorities.

In Indonesia, the official government position glorifies the pre-Islamic history of Java and other Indonesian islands, but Islamic fundamentalists see matters differently. A few years ago, terrorists bombed the magnificent Hindu temple complex at Borobodur in the name of Islam. In much the same way, Egyptian Islamic militants do not see the Pyramids as part of their history, but they attribute the works of ancient Egypt to an infidel race of long ago. This kind of thinking is not unusual. In nineteenth century Greece, Greek peasants had to be taught to revere the classical Greeks as their ancestors, not an easy leap for Orthodox Christian peasants to make. In Mexico, official propaganda very carefully identifies the Mexican state with the Aztec Empire, not with the Spanish Conquisidators.

In Africa, national identity poses special problems, since most of Africa’s boundaries were drawn up by Europeans. Many Africans work hard to identify themselves with indigenous political units which existed before the colonial period, but at the risk of also perpetuating old ethnic hostilities. Examples include Rwanda, Burundi, Lesotho, and Swaziland, which were all kingdoms before the Europeans arrived. Ethiopia has a long history as an empire, stretching back into medieval times, but Ethiopia’s ethnic minorities, like minorities in Russia, need to be convinced that national identity is not being forged at their expense. Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana picked his country’s name to commemorate an important empire of West Africa which flourished until the 11th century. Unfortunately, the Ghana Empire is not geographical situated in or near the modern republic. The rulers of Mali have also selected their name from medieval history, and they, at least, got their geography right.

What makes the entire issue of national identity so vexing is that objective factors of national identity tell only half the story. In every nation or would-be nation, there is a unique story, a unique experience, and a unique emotional texture. In truth, national identity is not easily susceptible to theorizing and modeling, which means that those who make foreign policy may be ignorant of vital information if they are trained in ahistorical methodologies. Nations comprise the building blocks of global politics, but they are not necessarily solid blocks: some nations are granite, some are limestone, and some are sand. Only a close study of a nation’s history, with a keen eye to search out nationalist mythology will allow deep understanding of nation-making.

Beyond the existence of governments, boundaries, flags and national anthems, nations, if they are real nations, are ideas of great emotional power beyond all else, part reality and part myth, part explicable and part mysterious.