France and the tyranny of symbols

Funny how the only French cabinet minister in trouble is the black one

Here’s a heartwarming story about opposition politicians calling for the resignation or dismissal of a major country’s justice minister, for this offence: she did not join in the singing the national anthem at a public event. The country in question is France, where Christiane Taubira was at a ceremony commemorating the end of slavery. A soloist was singing La Marseillaise. Taubira preferred not to sing along. Now a lot of politicians want her to pay with her job.

Taubira is black. I would prefer to believe that has nothing to do with the wilding that has been inflicted on her since Saturday, but I am stuck with some facts. One is that Benoît Hamon, France’s education minister, was on the same stage as Taubira; also did not sing the anthem; is not being criticized for it; and is white. Another is that the list of politicians who have been caught not singing the anthem in the past, and escaped without incident, includes Nicolas Sarkozy.

That’s one reason why this Le Monde headline, which says Taubira’s silence “upsets the Front National,” is disingenuous: one of the minister’s most ardent critics this weekend was Jean-François Copé, who leads Sarkozy’s nominally centre-right UMP party. On Twitter this weekend, UMP pols were complaining that the Front National had stolen their bright idea to call for Taubira’s dismissal.

I think it’s a really good idea for a society to avoid coercing acts of patriotism from its citizens. I think it’s handy to keep some perspective: surely it’s at least as significant that a black woman can be justice minister in today’s France as it is that some white men wish it wasn’t so. But if their message is that there is a basic incompatibility between Taubira and the Republic as it has (d)evolved in the early years of this century, they may have an unfortunate point: the lyrics of La Marseillaise do call for “impure blood” to “water our furrows,” and the Front National has led in recent polls for the election of French euro-parliamentarians later this month. Copé’s party has fallen to second place. Taubira’s will be lucky if it holds third.

I want to believe there is no place in France for the kind of attitude Copé is peddling. I’d be wrong. One online “poll” of self-selecting respondents found that 80 per cent agree Taubira should be out. Once you get into a logic of exclusion and suspicion, it’s hard to find a way out. Pauline Marois believed France should be a model for Quebec. In pursuit of that ideal she shattered her party. But the desire to play Patriotism Cop is not only Péquiste. It’s a constant temptation.