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The French far right's 'outdated' definition of identity

October 21, 2023

The French far right promises to defend French identity. But researchers say the party's definition of the term is outdated.

Abdelwaheb Sefsaf
French theater director Abdelwaheb Sefsaf is the child of Algerian parentsImage: Lisa Louis/DW

The question of French identity sat at the heart of a play rehearsed at a theater in Sartrouville, a northwestern suburb of Paris, on a recent Tuesday afternoon.

Half a dozen actors sat or stood on the planks of a cross-section of a wooden ship.

"On crée la sous-France — des Fatimas, des Mohameds," (they are creating the under-France, of the Fatimas and the Mohameds) one female actor shouted out loud. "Sous-France" is a pun on the word "souffrance", which means suffering.

The play "Kaldûn" tells the story of how insurgents were taken to the French territory of New Caledonia, located in the South Pacific, after the government cracked down on uprisings in Paris and French-ruled Algeria in the 19th century. Algeria gained independence in 1962 after it won an eight-year armed conflict against France, which had ruled the country for over a century by the end of the war. 

Director Abdelwaheb Sefsaf's parents moved from French Algeria to the southern city of Saint-Etienne just after World War II.

Members of a play at play practice
The play "Kaldûn" tells a story of French colonial historyImage: Lisa Louis/DW

'Repairing our collective memory'

The 53-year-old director, who has both French and Algerian nationality, says remembering largely forgotten parts of the country's history is crucial to getting to the bottom of French identity and his own.

"Telling these stories helps repair our collective memory as we suffer from the traumas of the parts of our history which we have forgotten," Sefsaf told DW. "I am 100% French. But I also need to own my personal history. As the son of immigrants, I am proud of this legacy and the culture I have inherited."

France's far-right National Rally party (RN), however, seems to prefer to ignore such aspects of the country's identity. Its 2022 presidential election manifesto featured a proposal to ban bi-nationals — like theater director Sefsaf — from jobs in the civil service.

Marine Le Pen, the RN candidate in the past two presidential elections, reached the decisive run-off vote for the presidency for the second time in a row last year.

She lost against now re-elected centrist President Emmanuel Macron, but the portion of the French population who voted for her rose more than five percentage points from her previous run at the presidency — from just under 34% in 2017 to over 41%.

Back on the campaign trail for next June's European Parliament elections, the party is once again championing its idea of French identity.

"I'll defend the original France, its identity and borders," RN president and lead candidate Jordan Bardella said at the party's first EU campaign meeting in the southern town of Beaucaire in September.

The party did not reply to requests for an interview.

One-third of French people have foreign origins

But is the party's version of French identity too simplistic? A recent study by France's National Institute for Statistics found that at least a third of French people have foreign origins. That figure will likely increase in the coming years.

At a recent conference at the anthropology museum Musée de l'Homme in western Paris, researchers discussed how French history has been marked by immigration and colonization, emphasizing that many in France, especially the far right, adhere to a bygone definition of the country's identity.

Historian Naima Huber-Yahi, who specializes in colonial history, told DW that a number of far-right French politicians promote this outdated vision.

"They pretend being French only includes white people ... This narrative stems from the 19th century and has not been updated since. It does not take into account other aspects such as our history of slavery, colonization or migration, nor does it include people of color such as many French living in overseas territories," she said. "It just doesn't correspond to today's reality."

Ahmed Boubeker, a sociology professor at the University of Saint-Etienne, spoke at the conference of a "hegemony of far-right ideas" in France.

"There's a whole group of reactionary intellectuals who believe that the France of the past was better than today's France and reject multiculturalism," he told DW.

"But these people seem to forget that the country was founded based on a political project. Everybody who concurs with it has the right to become French we need to stop retreating into nationalist ideas," Boubeker added.

Some French experience racism in daily life

Ghislaine Gadjard, an 87-year-old conference attendee, told DW she immigrated to mainland France from French overseas territory Guadeloupe in 1949.

Ghislaine Gadjard
Ghislaine Gadjard said she experiences racism in France every dayImage: Lisa Louis/DW

"When I arrived at the age of 12, we were seen as French despite our black skin, but that's no longer the case I'm now subjected to racist treatment almost every day," she said.

"France no longer sticks to its founding principles of liberty, equality and fraternity I am scared that our civil rights will be taken away from us if the far right came to power," she added.

Lobna Mestaoui, another attendee of the conference, was more optimistic. The 45-year-old immigrated to France from Tunisia 22 years ago to study French. She is now a French citizen and teaches at a school in an ethnically diverse area just outside of Paris.

Lobna Mestaoui
Lobna Mestaoui teaches in a school outside ParisImage: Lisa Louis/DW

"I know it's not easy to integrate into French society as an immigrant especially with far-right ideas gaining momentum," she told DW. "But I'm living proof that a black immigrant can find her place in France and trying to set a good example for my pupils."

What 'being French' means in New Caledonia

Back at the rehearsal, one actor represented yet another angle of French identity.

Simanë Wenethem belongs to New Caledonia's Kanak indigenous people. New Caledonia is still a French overseas territory. In the play, he portrays rebel chief Ataï, who leads a revolt against French colonial rule.

Nowadays, he said, being New Caledonian and thus being French means many things.

"I am French – that's just the way it is. But in our part of the country, we wonder about our identity as New Caledonians. What does it actually mean?" he told DW. "Many communities form a part of our people Indonesians, Vietnamese etc. They are well integrated into our society and we see them as brothers."

Simanë Wenethem
Simanë Wenethem wonders about the New Caledonian identityImage: Lisa Louis/DW

Trying to bridge rifts

Theater director Sefsaf said France needs a new, more inclusive narrative of identity. He said he believes that cultural initiatives like his play represent one way to further that narrative.

"France is our country. We need to construct it together and participate in defining its identity without denying our own. A shared identity is so much richer, as it includes parts of each one of us," he said.

Sefsaf's play will soon be shown in Sartrouville, Paris and other parts of France. The director told DW he's already working on his next, in hopes of bridging some of the rifts the far right is trying to deepen.

Edited by: Clare Roth