Translated by Greg Johnson
I reproduce here in full a seminal article that I published in Le Figaro on February 1, 1999, under the title: “Sovereignty is not Identity.” This article was part of the debate provoked by the Amsterdam Treaty and discussions about the future EU.
My intention was to liberate the minds of those who see history from a Jacobin and “state-centered” perspective, which has always been taught in France under the influence of an exceptionally powerful centralized state. This history focuses exclusively on the state and practices a kind of negation of the French people and the carnal nation that I hope to rehabilitate. This article provoked some lively debate in those circles most attached to the idea of sovereignty, promoting new thinking on national identity. I reproduce it as it was published at the time.
A wave of panic stirs our remotest hamlets. France, will she survive the Euro, the Treaty of Amsterdam, the conspiracy of the Eurocrats, to the year 2000? Is the loss of sovereignty the loss of identity? On these real issues regarding the challenge of the construction of Europe, historians have remained strangely silent. Yet if there is an area where history can illuminate the future, it is that of French identity in the midst of Europe.
Unlike the German nation, which lived without a unitary state for six centuries, from 1250 to 1871, France has not experienced such an interruption. Here, the unitary state was continuously maintained during the same period. Hence the causal relationship inscribed in our minds between sovereignty and identity. It has even become a kind of dogma, maintained by Jacobin historiography, that the French nation is the creation of the state and that, deprived of the latter, it would be in danger of death and dissolution.
It this were true, such a nation would be worthless. But it is false. Certainly no one would contest that the state, royal and republican, built the political and administrative framework of the nation. However, this has nothing to do with the formation of its substance. The state is not the creator of the French people or the source of our identity. History shows that. But this truth is so contrary to received ideas that it needs some explanation.
Let us refer to the origins, the Oaths of Strasbourg, publicly pledged in February 842 by Charles the Bald and Louis the German, grandsons of Charlemagne. The authentic text was written in Langue d′oïl (Old French) and Old High German. It is the oldest known document attesting to a linguistic separation between German-speaking and French-speaking Frankish barons of the same stock. The Oath of Strasbourg is, in a way, the official birth of the French and the German peoples before France and Germany. In the 9th century, without there ever being a nation state, two peoples and two cultures are already evidenced by the mysterious emergence of two distinct languages.
Move forward in time. From the 11th and 12th centuries, there is ample evidence of radiant French identity. At the time, the centralized state did not yet exist. The little courts of the petty kings of the time had nothing to do with the Song of Roland or Tristan and Isolde or the Lancelot of Chretien de Troyes, primordial monuments of a Frenchness deeply rooted in the European soil. The role of the state is also absent in the emergence and proliferation of the Romanesque style in the following centuries, in the admirable secular architecture of castles, towns, and country houses, neglected by the scholarly historiography up to André Chastel.
What sort of people, what sort of identity? In the 12th century, the famous Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis and adviser to Louis VII, responds in his own way: “We are French of France, born of the same womb.” Five centuries later, the grammarian Vaugelas, who in 1639 led the drafting of the Great dictionary of the Academy offers this definition: “People does not mean mob, but community represented faithfully by its nobility.”
More than the state, the deciding factor of the birth of a nation is the existence of a “core people”: homogeneous, numerous, active, “represented by its nobility,” from which unfold a language and style that gradually extend to similar neighboring peoples. Such was the fate of the historic “core people” of the Ile de France, Picardy, and Neustria, of high Frankish composition. The Capetian kings made it the base of their ambitions. What happened, under the dry rule of the state, to this “core people,” the people of Bouvines and many other exploits, once so strong?
It is to them that we owe our language and its inner strength, so long inviolable. Émile Littré emphasized this in his History of the French Language. He showed how powerful vitality and genuine originality allowed the transformation of a Celticized and Germanized low-Latin into Old French and then French.
Before being ennobled by literature, the language had arisen from the people. Montaigne knew well when he wrote: “I would rather my son to learn to speak in taverns than schools of eloquence. . . . If only I could confine myself to the words used in the market of Paris.” Ronsard said much the same thing by assigning this condition the adoption of new words: “they are to be molded and shaped on a pattern already received from the people.” A pattern which Etiemble, in the 20th century, nicely called the “people’s throat.” Of course there must still be a people, i.e., living and rooted communities, everything that the centralist government dislikes and has always fought.
The state has its own logic which is not that of the living nation. The living nation has nothing to fear from the loss of sovereignty, because sovereignty should not be confused with identity. If further proof is needed, the history of Quebec is eloquent enough. Since the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the French in Canada were totally abandoned by the royal state. Isolated in a hostile land under foreign sovereignty, they not only failed to disappear, but they multiplied, preserving their ancestral language and customs, fighting victoriously against Anglo-Saxon linguistic hegemony.
Identity lies in fidelity to oneself, and nowhere else.
1. One might add that in the 14th century several large fiefs often Carolingian and French escaped the royal state, but not French identity: Great Burgundy, Guyenne, French Flanders, Lorraine, Franche-Comté, and Savoy, not including independent Brittany.