Eric Besson in the News

Versailles, July 2009

For once, it isn't the US taking heat for its immigration practices.  French Immigration Minister, Eric Besson, is making waves.  Mr. Besson argues for enforcing French identity and history on immigrants, which to him, according to the news reports, seems to mean Christianity, the French language, and the lack of burkas.  The issues of diversity and freedom versus homogeneity and integration are, indeed, a hotbed of debate in many countries, as we hammer out what it means to be a nation, and what individual expression and cultural identity are, in a transnational world.

Defining ourselves, individually and collectively, is perhaps not so simple.  Taking a long-term, objective look at humans, we see that as a species, we are not quite as heterogeneous as we would think and that as "nations," we are not quite as unique as we would like to believe! We all share the same gene sequences which make us Homo sapiens sapiens, yet those sequences that make up individual traits have done a heck of a lot of traveling through the millenia.

Human history consists of groups branching out all over the globe, with some populations invading other populations to control their resources.  Gene pools were separated enough for characteristics to differentiate between regions, but also intermixed enough to keep gene pools fresh. In Europe, there are quite a few shared lineages -- the Romans were everywhere!  And the reach of the Normans and the Moors was nothing to sneeze at, either.

In any given region, people develop not just genetic traits, but also cultural ones.  As "outsiders" migrated in and out and administrative rule changed hands, some customs were lost in the shuffle, while new ones were created.  But many have persisted for generations and evolved with the influx of new ideas, regardless of who was in charge and what those rulers chose to call their territory.  Even in a country as young as the US, we have developed regional customs and traditions, separate from those of the nation as a whole.
My First Quiche, June 2009
Within the current borders of France, where Besson is attempting to define a singular identity, there are still localized languages, customs and cuisines (granted, most of those languages are dying quickly) that existed before France was France, or before those regions were part of France.  Take quiche.  We think of it as French, but some have argued that it is German:  Lorraine (née Lotharingia) was a part of Germany, or what we now consider Germany, when it was developed; and the word quiche has a Germanic (as opposed to Latin) derivation -- from Küche, a diminutive of Kuchen (cake).  And populations in the Alps, Pyrenees and along the Mediterranean share more cultural heritage with others in their respective areas that happen to be across modern day borders than they do with current countrymen from other départements.

It would be difficult to justify banning an article of clothing based on it not being a part of a culture without likewise banning others.  If France bans burkas based on that reasoning, they'd also have to ban caftans, kimonos, kilts, hula skirts, cowboy hats, Bermuda shorts...  Granted, kimonos wouldn't be a problem, since Japanese women have replaced them with Chanel and Vuitton.

Speaking of kimonos, 50 years after women in my family burned theirs attempting to fit in and be more American, the soon-to-be stepmother of the man I was dating shelled out a fortune for a Japanese wedding kimono to wear at her own wedding because it was unique and exotic for her, a fashion statement.  I wonder if women will be doing the same with burkas 50 years from now.

Kidding aside, how far should a government go in suppressing personal choices and compelling uniformity, particularly one that spans so many subcultures?  I think we all agree that actions that adversely affect others, such as stealing or physically harming someone, should be controlled, although there is often disagreement with regard to the how, but beyond that, I'm interested in knowing what you think...