Friday, October 15, 2004

The Language of la Republique

Historians of France love to discuss the territoriality of French nationality. The core of their argument is that French nationality/citizenship is based on where someone is born rather than whether or not one’s parents are citizens. Anyone born in France is a citizen; anyone born in any former French colony can repatriated after living a period of time in France.

By comparison, Germans are, by definition, the offspring of other Germans. They can be naturalized as citizens and give that status to their children, but being born in Germany does not confer citizenship. Rogers Brubaker has brought new emphasis to the differences between the two nations policies, claiming certain advantages for France.

Studying regionalism in Alsace shows how overblown the notion of territorial French nationality. When it was returned to France in 1918, the government kicked out people whom they considered to be insufficiently French or patriotic. This included Non-Alsatian Germans and native politicians who worked too closely with the German government (notably Schwander, mayor of Strasbourg and the last Statthalter, who was born in Colmar.) Mixed Alsatians (one German parent, one Alsatian) were viewed with suspicion but allowed to stay.

Even more, the Alsatian accent was viewed with suspicion. As I have written before, Paris sent few bureaucrats who spoke either German or the native dialect. French was the language of citizenship, and those who spoke it were locked out.

This was the attitude of the republic since the revolution. When the territory of France expanded to include parts of Germany, those territories were allowed to send representatives to the legislature in Paris. Few of them spoke French well–these representatives were local businessmen, not scholars who regularly conversed with intellectual across Europe. If they knew any French, it was crude. The write Chateaubriand reacted negatively against these new French citizens:
The natural extension of an empire is hardly fixed by geographical facts, as one could say, but by the conformity to mores and language: France ends where one no longer speaks French. ... These citizens of Hamburg and Rome who corrupt our language in the Senate, who do and should justly hate us, have led our ruin as a people, just as the Gauls and the other subjugated nations destroyed the fatherland of Cicero as they entered the Roman Senate.
Chateaubriand’s statement is a big problem. Many Frenchmen did not speak proper French at the time. That would be the work of much of the nineteenth century: teaching the children a standard national language. And it would work against the Alsatians in the 1920s when they could not speak French–their nationality was degraded.

Attention to conformity reveals that nationality was not limited to where one was born. These were now French territories, the people de facto citizens. Territory was only the beginning of citizenship: there were expectations about how citizens cultivated themselves. The Frenchman had a specific comportment, one inscribed in mores and language.


At 3:58 AM, Blogger Rob L. said...

Returned to France (i.e. in 1918)?

With respect to who really "ought" to own the Alsace region, well, it was the French were the original aggressors. Goes back at least to Louis XIV.

Steven Ozment actually makes this point pretty clear in his new book, A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People.

Cool weblog; I plan to check out more of your posts!

At 12:04 PM, Blogger Nathanael said...

The terminology is difficult, considering the long history of the territory. I don't like using "returned", but it works better than the popular terms of the day -- "recovered" and "de-annexed".


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