It’s Bastille day, the French national holiday, and an appropriate moment to reflect on nationalism and its symbols.
There are two 14 Julys – the public one one is the parade, which took place this morning, and was impressive as usual. The other, is the more private, popular, celebrations, which take place in every commune in France, often on the evening of the 13th, and which involve eating, drinking, dancing and fireworks. They also involve no violence, aggression, or ill-feeling against other countries. And yet the French flag or tricolore is everywhere, and the holiday is an outburst of popular patriotism.
In Anglo-Saxon societies, we tend to see groups of people waving national flags as probable extremists, and potentially violent and dangerous. In France this is usually not the case: why? Partly, it’s because the tricolore is the flag of the Republic, with its ideology of equality, and its belief that becoming French is an honour that anyone can aspire to, rather than something you have to be born with. There is a dangerous, xenophobic Right in France, which has been encouraged in recent years by idiots like Sarkozy, although it remains relatively marginal. But it prefers different symbols – Joan of Arc, for example.
The second reason is that French patriotism is essentially based on pride in culture and history, and on defending those qualities the country is believed to have. What are they? Well, a French person from nearly any part of the political spectrum would probably reel of a list including things like culture, history, patrimony, music, art, literature, philosophy, style, fashion, food, wine, cooking, design, the rights of man and the republican system, without pausing for breath.
What would an Anglo-Saxon say, if asked why their country was actually so great? You’d probably get an embarrassed silence and a threat to do you violence. What do these countries actually have? In the case of America, I suppose, you’d list violence, fast food, religious extremism and psychopathic individualism. In the case of Britain, boorishness, aggressiveness, bad food and dislike of bloody foreigners. It’s hard to take pride in any of that, which is why Anglo-Saxon assertions of national greatness normally come with threats attached, and normally express themselves in verbal, or actual violence.
The French example, whether you accept their arguments for their own greatness or not, is a useful example of how nationalism can sometimes be a positive force. If you’re smugly convinced of your own superiority, you’re less concerned about trying to enforce your view of it on everybody else.