Where else is the national flag so important as in the United States, where both wrapping oneself in it and burning it are characteristic forms of political expression? Most countries, by contrast, view their flags with cordial indifference. Last week, during a stay in Paris, I witnessed an exception to this rule. Ségolène Royal, a leading candidate in the upcoming presidential election, shocked the French by proposing that every household “fly the tricolor” on Bastille Day this July. A candidate of the Right who made such a suggestion would have been roundly ridiculed. But Ms. Royal happens to be a socialist, and the dismay and disbelief that greeted her remarks was of another magnitude altogether.
One can understand the political calculus that drove Ms. Royal to invoke the tricolor. In recent weeks her principal opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, has become the favorite, in part by his skilful invocation of the theme of national identity. The wave of car-burning across France in September 2005, mostly by unassimilated Arab-Muslim immigrants, is still fresh in memory. These riots took place mostly in the banlieues, housing projects that engirdle France’s cities where the country’s immigrant population is concentrated.
But there is no guarantee that future outbreaks will be confined there. Last week, a routine check of metro tickets at the Gare du Nord led to the apprehension of a ticketless rider who happened to be an illegal alien (or sans-papier, to use the politically correct French term); his arrest provoked an instant and massive riot. (This, to put it mildly, startled Parisians, who seemed to imagine that such violence would be confined to the less fashionable quarters of their city.
It was precisely these problems that led Sarkozy to call, in March, for the establishment of a new Ministry of National Identity, earning him a torrent of abuse from the Left, which has coined the slogan Sarko = Facho. Still, Royal’s sudden concern for the devices and symbols of French nationhood suggests that she fears that Sarkozy may have found a winning strategy.
What is remarkable in all of this is the discomfort of French socialists with their own flag. After all, its revolutionary credentials are impeccable, the tricolor having replaced the Royalist oriflamme in 1794 at the apogee of the French revolution. But even this is perhaps not the strangest aspect of the story. Whatever one might think of the contemporary French Left, one cannot deny that it rests on a long and principled tradition: anti-monarchic, anti-clerical, anti-nationalist. Royal’s ostentatious embrace of the tricolor offends that principled tradition, which accounts for the storm on the Left. An American observer, however, is tempted to see it differently, as the tactical surrender or concealment of party principle for short-lived electoral advantage—what came to be known in the 1990’s as triangulation. Can it be that the electoral politics of modern France are converging with their American counterpart?