Rallying around the French flag... or not

For every French patriot who hung the tricolour from their balconies during Friday's memorial ceremony for the victims of the Paris attacks, countless others didn't. Flag-waving patriotism of the US kind is a turn-off for many French people.


"Non. We are not in the United States."

Muriel Babandisha, a 23-year-old resident of Paris's 19th arrondissement, was echoing the views of many of her compatriots - especially the younger ones – when she told the Le Parisien newspaper that she didn’t think hanging a flag in her window was the right symbol for commemorating the 130 people killed in the Paris attacks. “I am always a little wary of these patriotic eruptions,” she explained.

For President François Hollande, bedecking public monuments and homes in the blue-white-and-red tricolour is an ideal way for French people to show their solidarity at a time of national mourning. And given the ban on public gatherings under the State of Emergency, many are inclined to agree.

Flags have been hoisted, waved and draped from lamp posts at other epochal moments in recent French history – most memorably, after the “Libération” in 1944, or the against-all-odds victory in the 1998 World Cup.

But at other times, the tricolour has been associated with darker chapters. It was the standard of the World War II Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime and, more recently, has been appropriated by nationalists, including the far right National Front political party.

By embracing the flag as a potent symbol of Republican values, Hollande, a Socialist president, is also attempting to reclaim it from the right, in the name of universal French values of freedom and democracy.

Security-at-all-costs climate

The appeal to patriotic impulses comes against a backdrop of a State of Emergency-sanctioned security crackdown that has seen police conduct over 1,200 house searches over the past two weeks. Some 142 people have been taken into custody. In one northern French department, Nord Pas de Calais, the local prefect (head of the regional police) has banned all sales of take-away alcohol between 8pm and 8am.

The security-at-all-costs climate has dramatically shifted the debate on immigration, amid calls for more draconian restrictions on migrants. Prime Minister Manual Valls said this week that Europe “can no longer keep taking in refugees - it isn’t possible.”

And now, France has formally notified the European Council that is opting out of certain provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights so long as the State of Emergency remains in effect. The Convention upholds the fundamental right to life and bans inhuman and degrading treatment. It also prohibits slavery. Any opt-out will be subject to tight limitations.

For many French people, Voltaire’s warning that “it is lamentable, that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind” may seem as relevant as ever.

This article was originally published on November 27, 2015.

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