Monday, January 20, 2014

Redrawing of French “Régions” to Buoy Right-Wing Normans but Stoke Breton, Basque, and Savoyard Anger

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
To redraw the map, Sarkozy, in 2008, had commissioned Édouard Balladur, a fellow conservative who had been François Mitterand’s prime minister in the 1990s, to proposes reforms to France’s governmental structures.  Though Hollande has not yet said how he wants the 15 régions to be organized, his party’s backing of the number 15 suggests a close hewing to the Balladur proposal.

Édouard Balladur and Nicolas Sarkozy cooking up reforms (careful—Bretons can read lips!).
It should be said here that France’s régions are not a big deal in the way that Italy’s or Spain’s regions are.  Many Spanish and Italian regions have devolved legislatures, even fully autonomous status.  France, on the other hand, is one of the most centralized states in the Western democratic world.  The départements—tiny collectivities much like counties in the United States—are the most significant level of local government, but the régions have no legislative authority but merely spend some education and infrastructure funds in accordance with decisions made at higher levels of government.  These régions were created only in 1982.  The original 40 or so provinces of pre-revolutionary France corresponded in many cases to strong regional and ethnic identities, but when, in the 1790s, the French nobility was abolished, so were the various duchies and other petty monarchies they governed.  The départements were designed specifically to be small enough to prevent regional identities from asserting themselves.  The Napoleonic interregna were similarly hostile to anything that challenged a centralized French national identity.

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.
When the régions were created in 1982, some pre-revolutionary provinces, such as Franche-Comté, Alsace, Lorraine, Brittany, and Burgundy, were reincarnated as régions, while others were not: Normandy was now split between Upper Normandy and Lower Normandy, while Poitou was absorbed into a larger region, Languedoc and Roussillon were merged, and others, like Anjou, Lyonnais, and Marche were left buried.  In 2010, activists in Picardy had to raise a stink to avoid the abolition of their region altogether.

The French régions as they are today
No scheme pleases everybody, but top-down schemes, which characterize the way nearly everything of this sort is done in France, please fewest of all, and the Balladur map, if implemented, will be not much of an exception.  Here is what the Balladur plan would look like:

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.
Savoy is another problem area.  It used to be a powerful independent duchy, with a capital at Turin and territory that included a large swath including what are now southeastern France, northwestern Italy, and much of francophone Switzerland, Savoy was always at least as Italian as it was French.  It became part of the Kingdom of Sicily in 1714, then was taken over by France after the Revolution, then given to the Kingdom of Sardinia after Napoleon’s fall in 1815, then retaken by Napoleon III in 1860, which modern Savoyard nationalists still call an illegal, secret deal.  In fact, when the Kingdom of Italy was established soon after, the House of Savoy became the royal family of all Italy.  Even today, residents of the two French départements of Savoie and Haute-Savoie, abutting Italy and Switzerland, speak a group of Frenchish–Italianish dialects which are sometimes called a separate language, Arpitan.  This is also spoken in Geneva and in Italy’s fully autonomous francophone region, Val d’Aosta, just over the border in the Alps, where there is a popular movement to reunify with their kindred in an independent Savoy Republic.  Savoyard nationalism is very active in French Savoy itself.  Not only is there a Savoy Region Movement (Mouvement Région Savoie, or M.R.S.), which seeks a separate région of Savoy, but there is also a political party called I Believe in the Savoy Region! (La Région Savoie, j’y crois!), which wants a fully autonomous Savoy with a devolved autonomous parliament—in addition to the Savoyard League (Ligue savoisienne), which has set up a provisional government-in-exile in Geneva.  A poll in 2000 found a quarter of respondents in the two Savoy départements wanting to be an independent state, while a full half wanted an autonomous region.  In 2010, 48% of Savoyards liked the idea of Savoie and Haute-Savoie becoming Swiss cantons, and a whopping 43.7% of all Swiss and 55.9% of French-speaking Swiss agreed.  In that Swiss survey, the question also included the annexation of Franch–Comté, a région to the north, along the Swiss–French–German border which would also, incidentally, be obliterated in the Balladur plan and merged with Burgundy.  Why Hollande wants to kick awake the sleeping giant of Savoyard nationalism by producing yet another map that denies their existence and keep them barricaded from the Italian and Swiss citizens they regard as kindred is beyond me.

Savoyard nationalists protest at a Swiss border crossing
The most anger, however, over the Balladur plan has been generated in Brittany, where the Balladur suggestion of attaching Pays-de-la-Loire région’s Loire-Atlantique département to Brittany has been popular, but not at all the suggestion of merging Brittany with all of Pays-de-la-Loire into a single region.  This is regarded, quite rightly, as designed to dilute Breton regional identity and make the establishment of a Breton autonomous region even less likely than it already is.  (And it is unlikely; France doesn’t “do” autonomous regions.)  The nationalist Breton Democratic Union (Union Démocratique Bretonne, or U.D.B.), a left-wing, sometimes radically left-wing party, has been especially forceful on this point.

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.]

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