There is a world of difference between France’s new Socialist president, François Hollande, and his rightward-tilting, law-and-order predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. But there is one thing at least that both seem to agree on: Hollande decided this month to revisit plans developed under Sarkozy to reduce the number of France’s constituent régions. Hollande would like to see 15 régions, down from the current 22 (not counting overseas régions in the Indian Ocean and Caribbean, which make for a total of 27).
|Hollande takes aim at anyone expressing regional pride|
|Édouard Balladur and Nicolas Sarkozy cooking up reforms (careful—Bretons can read lips!).|
The French Republic, let us recall, has one of the worst records on the treatment of minorities of any Western democracy. The French Revolution practically invented modern nationalist chauvinism as we know it, and the government doesn’t let their minorities forget it. Official recognition of any minority language is constitutionally forbidden. Breton and Basque citizens of the republic still recall being savagely beaten in state-run schools for uttering a mere word of their native languages. France has some of the free world’s most restrictive laws against wearing religious clothing—laws blatantly crafted to punish and marginalize the country’s Muslims and Jews. Gypsies are routinely rousted from their encampments by police thugs before being deported, with a brutality that alarms human-rights organizations. And the openly racist National Front (Front nationale, or F.N.) political party is stronger in France than equivalent anti-immigrant hate parties in any other western European country. France, as we all know, is a nice place to live—but really only if you’re French. (See recent articles from this blog on sectarian frictions in Sarkozy’s France and on equivalent abuses in Québécois nationalism in Canada (plus a follow-up).)
|Sarkozy goose-stepped his way into the hearts of French xenophobe voters.|
|The French régions as they are today|
First, the winners. Normans were the most vocally disenfranchised—or, let’s say, explicitly not re-enfranchised—by the 1982 reforms. Surely this has something to do with the Second World War. Normans, after all—snug against Flanders and across the English Channel from Britain—speak a dialect full of Scandinavian and other Germanic idioms and feel a particular kinship with England. Every English schoolboy knows that his kingdom’s history only truly picks up the pace with the Norman Conquest of 1066. Queen Elizabeth II, as monarch, holds also the ceremonial title Duchess of Normandy, signifying her suzerainty over the crown dominions of Jersey and Guernsey—the only remaining places where the old Norman language is spoken—while the right-wing English Democrats party, which seeks England’s exit from the United Kingdom (discussed recently in this blog), waves the triple-lion flag of Normandy at its rallies. Then, in the 1960s, France’s greater economic integration with Germany as founding members of the European Common Market (precursor to today’s European Union) disgruntled Norman nationalists in France, who felt their ties with the U.K. (which did not join until 1973) weakened in favor of ties with the much less well liked Germans to their southeast. Most Normans, like most Scandinavians, had reacted coolly to Nazi Germany’s attempt to woo them during the war as “fellow Aryans.” But Normans were more specifically anti-German than anti-fascist: the radical Norman Movement (Mouvement normand) of the 1960s, had a distinctly right-wing tilt which emphasized their Teutonicness, if not specifically Germanness (much like the way in which northern Italy’s right-wing Northern League (Lega Nord) clings to the attenuated historical “Nordicness” of the Lombard people). The movement’s leader, Didier Patte, was convicted in the 1970s of running guns to Breton terrorists (more on the Bretons below). Surely, in 1982, Normandy was left partitioned as a way of ensuring that a distinctly un-French regional identity did not rise again.
Likewise with Alsace–Lorraine, an even more culturally Germanic part of France which has spent about as much time under German dominion as under French in the modern period. They were left as two regions, Alsace and Lorraine, perhaps for fear that uniting them as Alsace–Lorraine would reawaken proud memories of the short-lived Republic of Alsace–Lorraine, a Soviet-sympathizing workers’s state which existed for 12 defiant days in 1918 in the chaos of the end of the First World War. The Balladur plan would reunify both Normandy and Alsace–Lorraine. After all, the war was far in the past now, and, after all, it was important for Sarkozy to court the votes of supporters of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Nazi-sympathizing founder of the National Front. Indeed, Alsace First! (Alsace d’abord! / Elsaß zuerst!), the main Alsatian nationalist party (Lotharingians have always felt more French than Alsatians), has itself come under criticism for being far too right-wing and anti-immigrant.
Completely ignored in the Balladur plan are the interests of the Basque people of Pyrenées-Atlantique département in the région of Aquitania and of the small number of Catalans in Provence–Alpes–Côte d’Azur région on the Mediterranean. Clearly, the French government regards these ethnic groups’ ties with larger and more autonomous communities of radical separatist kindred just over the border in Spain to be a security threat. The terrorist group Basque Homeland and Freedom (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA) has been a major force mostly in Spain but has killed innocent people in France as well, while the Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, or E.R.C.) political party is the king-making junior partner in the fragile ruling separatist coalition in Spain’s autonomous region of Catalonia, seeking not only full independence for Catalonia but reunification with the “Northern Catalonia” region just over the Pyrenees in France. So no surprises there in the Balladur map, though it might not be wise to take up this issue in 2014 as both Catalan and Basque nationalism in Spain are cresting as never before, threatening to unravel the kingdom itself.
|Members of the Basque nationalist group ETA. Something tells me they’re not moderates.|
|Savoyard nationalists protest at a Swiss border crossing|
This is a bad time to alienate Breton nationalists. At a time when Scotland is planning a referendum on independence for later this year, Welsh and Cornish nationalism (see my recent article) are becoming more strident, and even the Celtic nation of Galicia is only agreeing to stay within the Kingdom of Spain because the current Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy Brey, is himself Galician—at such a time, this is not when you want to needlessly piss off a bunch of radical Celts when you could just as well leave things be. But the insular mindset of French nationalism chauvinism sort of doesn’t even “get” what regional and ethnic pride are; why, after all, would anyone want to not be French? As the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy unravel all around them, François Hollande may be the next European leader to get a rough lesson in what the new European ethnoscape is shaping up to be. Good luck with that map-redrawing business, Monsieur Président. Tell us how it works out for you.
[You can read more about Bretons, Basques, and other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar. The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon. Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this special announcement for more information on the book.]