Reading about Sarkozy and French nativists

For centuries, Europeans searched for the source of the Nile on the theory that it was the single greatest force defining the greatest civilization of the ancient world.  In the 19th century, adventurer Henry Morton Stanley confirmed earlier speculation that the source was Lake Victoria, which is widely accepted today.  But Lake Victoria itself is fed by a substantial stream that originates in Burundi.  So, is that the source of the Nile?  And, anyway, Lake Victoria only feeds the White Nile, which meets the Blue Nile — which contributes the majority of the water and fertile soil to the Nile downstream and whose source is in Ethiopia — at the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.  So, does the true source of the Nile lie in Ethiopia?  And does any of this make the Nile less Egyptian?

I thought of all this while reading Michael Kimmelman’s piece in the New York Times today about the Maison de l’Histoire de France museum that President Nicolas Sarkozy intends to create to celebrate French history.  Politically, the reason to push for such a museum is to shore up the confidence of French nativists (and steal their votes from the extreme right) who are insecure because not everyone in France today looks like them or shares the same history.  These nativists wish to assert the one-source theory of civilization because they feel overwhelmed by the tributaries.  But civilization itself — every civilization, including the white, Catholic civilization beloved of French nativists — is the product of many sources and feeds into many deltas.  Never mind the France of today: the France of their idealized youth half a century ago was shaped as much by Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian migration, the long rivalries with England and Germany, and the Arabs from North Africa through Andalusia up to Poitiers as it was by any of the supposedly noble and endangered cultures the nativists now wish to exalt.

Kimmelman quotes Nicolas Offenstadt, a young history professor at the Sorbonne, as saying:

“To know about French Algeria you need to know about Algeria before France arrived there,” he explained. “If we need any history museum, it would be a world history museum, not a French history museum, to give us a real perspective on who we are, and what is France today.”

This need is hardly unique to France; but what is unique, at least within Europe, is that France alone espoused a universal ideology — liberté, egalité, fraternité and the Declaration of the Rights of Man — that ought to leave the French psychologically better prepared for large-scale immigration than those countries like Germany and Italy that based their identity on an imaginary blood purity.  But for many, as it turns out, fear and insecurity trump espoused values.  That’s a shame that leads me to my own nostalgia for an idealized past:  France used to stand for something.  One day, it will again.  But it is the brittlest members of the generation caught in the transition that cannot adjust.  Mercifully, their children will be more French — in the best sense of the word — than they are.


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