French Citizenship and Race

French Citizenship and Race

One of my many shortcomings as a blogger is that it takes me a long time to think things through.  I tend to react to what ought to be immediate situations on Twitter a couple of months later.  Which leads to long silences, and boring meta introductions about process like this one.  Oh well.

Back in November, after the horrific terror attacks in Paris, the well-known anonymous blogger @hbdchick tweeted.

To which I replied,

Well of course all hell broke loose from the #hbd people.  The replies were of this kind…

How could I be such a liberal idiot as to be unable to see that the attackers were Arab, not French?  But of course it was perfectly clear what was going on.  The attackers were French citizens, born in France to immigrant parents.  @hbdchick meant that they weren’t ethnically French, and on one level it is obvious what she meant.  They weren’t cheese-eating guys in berets.

But what does it mean to be ethnically French?  I have been reading a wonderful history of France called The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb. The book is a cultural history of France in the period from about a hundred years before the revolution in 1789 to about 100 years after. The theme is that @hbdchick ‘s vision of what it means to be “French” is a completely modern invention.  At the time of the French revolution, what we now think of as France consisted of Paris, surrounded by vast terrain of mixed tribes mini-nations and people.  Fewer than half of the people living in modern French borders spoke French at the time of the revolution.  Most of them had no notion of what France was, much less thought of themselves as French.  They were not cheese-eaters with berets and pencil-thin mustaches. They were Bretons, Alsatians, Basquaise, indeed tiny subgroups of all of these, with local languages and political systems.  Of course, most people never traveled more than 20 miles from their birthplace, so they had no notion that something like France even existed in Paris.  For both the revolutionary and Napoleonic governments, trying to enforce some kind of political and cultural uniformity on this chaotic situation was a major administrative task, and it was still far from complete by the time of WWII.

Because people traveled less and more slowly, obviously the process of constant ethnic resorting did not happen as rapidly as it does today, but it still went on all the time.  There were constant migrations of displaced people across Europe. The problem with the whole #hbd picture of nation states separated into meaningful ethnic categories is not the the ethnicity is imaginary, but rather that it is temporary.  In 100 years, “France” and French people will be very different than they are now, just as it was different 100 years ago.  The people who live there will still be genetically more like each other than they are like people who live somewhere else, with more genes that arrived from North Africa, but that is simply an accelerated version of what has always been true.  There is no such thing as a permanent, or even better than transient, French ethnic identity.  The whole idea of political modernism is that in the absence of any kind of ethnic historical consistency, nationhood and citizenship has to be built on political consistency, on citizenship.  Liberté, egalité, fraternité.

Those guys were French citizens.  They were French.




Eric Turkheimer

Eric Turkheimer is the Project Leader for the Genetics and Human Agency Project. Eric is a clinical psychologist and behavioral geneticist. For thirty years he has been involved in empirical and theoretical investigations of the implications of genetics for the genesis of complex human behavior. Current projects include understanding the interaction between socioeconomic status and the heritability of intelligence, and philosophical analysis of the ethical status of work that purports to demonstrate biologically based differences in behavior among racial groups.

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