Archives 2010

Clare Doyle reflects on the Burqua, “the Oirish” and French national identity

Late last year, the French government instituted a debate on the nature of French national identity.   As an outsider living in the country, I thought, ‘Why bother?’  The French know who they are, they have a history of making such definitions, and they have a three word logo which expresses what they are, or aspire to, what more do they want?

As with many such initiatives, it was not that simple.  The debate was more about trying to switch votes from the right wing National Front to the ruling party, than it was about having a genuine exchange.  As it happened, the entire enterprise backfired, and in the run up to the regional elections (in which the governing party lost badly), the discussion was back-pedalled, and eventually came to a stuttering halt.  In a moment of what appears to me sheer lunacy, the government decided to change the debate. The notion now is to bring in a law banning the wearing of the full burqua in public places.

Part of the justification of passing such a law is on grounds of feminism, i.e. protecting the rights of women.  This makes me feel extremely uneasy.  I reckon you should never trust a man who says he’s a feminist, or a woman who says she isn’t, since it’s in neither of their best interests.  The sight of these besuited, overwhelmingly male legislators making declarations about what is best for women rings alarm bells. There is another strand to the ban, which is around security, that no one should stride the streets of France with their face covered. However, I imagine the ban will not be extended to those who wear motorcycle helmets that cover their faces, and what about the parades around Carnival when revellers celebrate by wearing masks?

Perhaps I’m bigoted (to use the adjective of the moment), but underlying the statements about protecting women, I suspect an unexpressed racist undercurrent.  What in effect is being said is that wearing this outfit is un-French.

My own confusion about race, identity, nationality, explains some of my unease.  I was born and brought up in England of Irish parents who met in Argentina.   Most summers we left the comfort of our little seaside resort, and exposed ourselves to the ritual of holidays with the Irish cousins.  In England we were the Irish family (noisy, numerous), in Ireland we were the English (funny accents, no real understanding of the 600 years of oppression, or was it 700?).  It was confusing but there were advantages.  At least we could play both sides.  We had no responsibility for the aftermath of the civil war in Ireland or the ravages of the IRA in England.

When I went to University in Ireland (Trinity College Dublin) I found it equally disconcerting.  To some of my English contemporaries my accent meant that I was one of them and for the same reason, to many of my Irish friends I was also one of ‘them’, the Imperialists.  For a while I decided to sound ‘more Irish’ but it felt uncomfortable. I wanted to be listened to for what I said, rather than the way in which I said it.

Where did I feel most at home?  Hard to say.   As a cradle Catholic my discovery of the Church in Ireland was a voyage of incredulity and shock.  My revolutionary cousins, who thought nothing of threatening all kinds of retribution for all the wrongs they had suffered at the hands of the perfidious English, sat in the pews and listened like lambs to ill thought out, ignorant opinions and rules about how they should behave.   In England I was appalled by the blithe dismissal of the ‘Ahrish’ as somehow quaint or faintly dangerous.  I came to the conclusion that the English claimed a sense of history whereas they only had tradition.  In Ireland there was nothing but history, but no real appetite for the future.

Ten years ago in London I sat drinking coffee with various tradesmen who were working on our house.  The conversation turned to immigrants and who they liked or didn’t.  The Asians came first.  They didn’t really understand them but generally it was agreed they were alright, they worked hard, ran the corner shops and kept themselves to themselves. The men worked their way through the various ethnic groups – the West Indians, lazy but good cricketers, the Chinese, the Poles, the Jews, all had something in their favour.  Finally one of the group spoke up. ‘The ones I really can’t stand are the Irish.  Look at all the trouble they cause.’ There was a general nodding of heads in agreement around the table.  I started to laugh.  One of the men turned to me politely and asked, ‘Do you know many Irish people, Madam?’  ‘No,’ I replied a little acidly, ‘only my mother and father.’   There was a sudden scraping of chairs as they hastily made their way back to work.

So where does that leave me?  I’m basically disoriented; I have no real sense of place or nationality.  I often wonder had my parents emigrated to any other country, especially one which did not share a language, whether my own national identity would be clearer. I also wonder if it matters, especially now when borders mean less than they did.  Generally I’m comfortable with the discomfort.

The discussion continues here in France, and the notion of ‘national Identity’ will meander its way around the political debate and possibly there will be some sort of conclusion.  I hope as part of it, they drop the Burqua law.

I don’t think you can beat liberté, egalité, fraternité. It says it all. What does it mean?  To me it says that it’s more important to have ideals about how to treat one another than it is to feel a sense of place.

© Clare Doyle

July 2010