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Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité … Réalité?


Vaibhav does not wish to return to his native Sri Lanka.  While there, he was tortured as a Tamil spy, and afterwards beaten to the point of death.  He was later incarcerated as a traitor and forced to endure atrocious conditions.  “No,” he says, his eyes pleadingly gazing at the faded Tricolour flag in the Appeals Commission of Refugees, “I want to stay here in the land of liberté, égalité et fraternité.”  Through a stream of fluent Singhalese, the French phrase, bolstered by such a stark linguistic contrast, rings with profound clarity and mesmerises the room.  

This slogan has captured the attention of the entire French nation, and indeed France’s revolutionary heritage and its symbols have come to play a leading role in the current debate on integration.  Marianne, a prominent figure of the revolution who is famously depicted by Delacroix leading citizens on the barricade, has been appropriated by various NGOs to reflect the changing face of a multiethnic France, inciting some furore.  Even the French flag, the familiar Tricolour that was first officially used during the revolution, has been appropriated and changed from blue, red and white to black, blanc, beur (black, white, Arab).  This revolutionary heritage, initiated and designed by a homogenous group of white male ‘proletarians’, is somewhat surprisingly being applied to the diverse groups of people who compose modern-day France.  More surprisingly, however, is the fact that it seems to be working.  

A Revolutionary Heritage

Few historical events have been so mythologized as the French revolution.  From the Marseillaise, the national anthem that gallantly recounts the storming of the Bastille, to Hugo’s impassioned Les Misérables about the heroism of valorous revolutionaries and idealists, the events of 1789 are engrained in the cultural and historical fabric of France.  Politicians frequently reference the revolution in speeches and the annual Bastille Day celebrations would give outsiders the impression that the prison was stormed only just yesterday.   

Yet it is said amongst French historians that the revolution lasted almost a century, starting in 1789 with the dramatic storming of the Bastille and ending - after tumultuous monarchies, an Empire and two failed republics - with the establishment of the Third Republic in 1870.  France’s ‘revolutionary heritage’ connotes the values fought for in the 1789 and the symbols that encapsulate them, which were clarified and disseminated in the Third Republic and have survived the centuries to frame contemporary French self-conception.  

The Third Republic was rooted in the idea of equality – and of instilling French identity into all people who happened to reside in France.  Originally, the problem of integration stemmed from powerful regional rather than national identities; people felt stronger loyalty to their province than to the central French state.  This proved an enormous challenge for nation-building, and so the government of the Third Republic used the army and school system to teach French language rather than regional tongues and to inculcate students with French republican values.  Today, for better or for worse, the same system is used for the same ends of infusing French values into students. 

Patrick Weil, prominent French public intellectual, explains that the most important inheritance from the Third Republic is the idea that the nation is one and indivisible, in which everyone is a citizen regardless of class, ethnicity or origin.  Thus, he argues, being French is central to a person’s identity, and any other loyalties are subordinated by this overarching identity.  This apt observation certainly corresponds to the integration debate; arguments are framed in terms of the Republic and there remains a somewhat sacrosanct notion that all those in the Republic are citizens of that republic, subject to equal treatment by the state.

This republican ideal is given form in the phrase ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, coined by the French philosopher Fénelon in the seventeenth century and established firmly during the Third Republic.  Majestically described by Hugo, trees of liberty were planted by the government and later the catchphrase was propounded firmly in school curricula and through the army.  It was inscribed on the pediments of all public buildings in 1880, and was included in the 1946 and 1958 Constitutions.  It also appears on everyday items, ranging from the former French currency to postage stamps and government seals.  Jacques Chirac, President of France, has consistently proclaimed that “every French citizen is equal in front of the revolutionary ideal of the republic, the famous liberté, égalité and fraternité.” The ideal, according to the Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is “an integral part of [French] national heritage,” rooted in the model of the Third Republic.

Republican symbols are everywhere in France.  The phrase ‘‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ is almost inescapable, yet so too are images of the Tricolours and Marianne, both symbols of the Republic.  This year’s World Cup brought with it a veritable army of Tricolour flags, which have been the official standard of the French Republic since 1880.  The Flag is designed to represent the wholeness of France, the republican ideal that everyone is united as – above all – a French citizen, and the constitutions of 1946 and 1958 (article 2) instituted the "blue, white and red" flag as the national emblem of the Republic.  Likewise, Marianne is featured prominently as the encapsulation of the ‘Triumph of the Republic’ and, according to the Ministère des Affaiers Etrangères, she is considered ‘the most prominent depiction of the French republic’, representing fairness, bravery and the triumph of France.  The Ministry notes that she is someone with whom all French citizens can identify.

Children of the Revolution

It is a small wonder then, that in an attempt to create a united national identity (or what Benedict Anderson would label an ‘imagined community’), the French government has heavily invested in promoting these values to citizens from a young age.  Beginning in elementary school, the revolutionary heritage described above is introduced and reinforced as all-encompassing qualities to which students should aspire.  At a primary school in the nineteenth district, a multiethnic area of Paris with a high concentration of immigrants, nine-year old Salomé wrote a poem entitled We Are All Equals.  The poem reads:

“Whether you are Catholic, Muslim or Jewish,

Or if you are none of those, we are all equals!

Whether you wear a cross, a kipa or a veil,

Or if you are none of those, we are all equals!

Whether you go to a Church, a synagogue or a mosque,

Or if you go to none of those, we are all equals!”

Inspired by a book that the class studied, this poem shows the successful transmission of this fundamental French concept of republicanism – that no matter who we are or what we believe, we are all equal, all French and all citizens of the Republic.

Teachers take their jobs very seriously.  Florence Sautereau, an instructor at the elementary school, is passionate about these revolutionary values and states that that her vocation embodies these Third Republic principles.  To underline the point, Ms. Sautereau protested the recent law that changed her job title from institutrice to professeur des écoles.  While both terms translate into English as ‘teacher’, the former is rooted in the word ‘institution’, revealing Sautereau’s opinion that a teacher is a part of the state institutions, both etymologically and purposively, and thus they have a responsibility to promote values of the institutions.  She asserts that primary school teachers present children with their crucial first interactions with government, and so must embody the goals of these institutions and their values – namely, the values of the revolution.  

Yet Sautereau laments the inaccessibility of the very government institutions she teaches about and notes the irony that the best way to bridge this divide is by further emphasising the revolutionary heritage for which the government stands.  She notes that some pupils do not dare to say that the institutions are their own and that her pupils feel a gap between the government institutions that are supposed to represent them and the actuality of exclusion.  While Santereau may be more vehement in her desire to spread these values than other colleagues, she certainly has gone out of her way to inculcate students with the sense that this is “your republic” and “your National Assembly” in order to create more active citizens of the republic, emphasising the inclusive revolutionary heritage to further integration.  Even her conscious choice of pronouns demonstrates how hard she is trying to forge a connection between young students, their ideals and their institutions.  Sitting in her classroom at lunchtime, she proudly shows a photograph of Rachid, a student of Algerian descent, standing in front of a picture of the National Assembly - his National Assembly.  

She states that it is absolutely necessary to bridge the divide between people and their institutions, for young people must feel a part of the republic, as equal citizens in France and live under the credo of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’.  On this point, she fully supports the Mayor of Paris’s Assistant for Education, Eric Ferrand, in his desire to emblazon every public edifice in the capital with the slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité,”  believing that it is these revolutionary ideals and symbols are the means to foster the end goal of civic integration.  

Yet when her class was asked what they remembered about their trip to the National Assembly, they provided anecdotes about the lighting fixtures and former Presidents.  When further probed about the symbols of France, like Marianne and the Tricolour, they vehemently maintained their importance but at the same time failed to come to any conclusive and encompassing definition of their meaning.  

So What Does It all Mean?

While defining these symbols and mottos is, of course, no mean feat for a classroom of elementary school students, it also proved to be difficult for many French citizens surveyed on the street.  

In a survey conducted at Place d’Italie, a multicultural and middle-class district of Paris with a Chinese influence, the responses were unexpected.  While every French citizen surveyed knew and revered the ideal of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, few actually thought that it was a realised goal and none would think outside of this ensconced framework. ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ proved to be not just a loose set of values but rather an entrenched paradigm, shaping how people perceived any debate about France and civic integration.

Of the people surveyed, one woman noted that liberté, égalité and fraternité was “a real mess”, arguing that there is no liberty, equality or fraternity.  Interestingly, however, she vehemently argued that the state should still try to achieve this aim.  Instead of questioning the idea, she firmly cherished it, but realised that it is still far away.  

Another person, a 50-year old immigrant from Niger, noted that nobody in France has the same opportunities, so there is no equality in the country – but that ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ was still an important goal.  Yet another noted that people come from disparate backgrounds, so they are bound to feel different effects and have different chances.  Another immigrant claimed that what is needed is not a change in the system, but simply more of liberté, égalité and fraternité.  One person who was surveyed, a woman in her twenties, demonstrated how intertwined these ideals can be, asking, “can we say that we have equality?  No, it is only an ideal..”  There is a strong desire to think within this mantra, and yet for everyone the phrase roused entirely different feelings and perspectives – from a goal that was almost complete to an impossible triumvirate of ideals. Interestingly, the nebulous term was rarely criticised and is still the pervasive paradigm amongst this sample of the French people.  

The gap between the reality and the ideal is stark.  People in Place d’Italie referenced La Haine, the internationally acclaimed film depicting the huge differences between the banlieu and metropolitan Paris, as showing that the ideals were still unfulfilled.  The high unemployment rate, dissonance with the Muslim community and educational opportunities at elite preparatory schools were all cited as signs that France’s values were not actualised.  People raised a wide array of concerns and yet, while the ‘current situation’ in France was lamented, those surveyed still clung to the revolutionary heritage as a hopeful, positive thing – though it offered them solace in different ways.

The phrase and the revolutionary heritage do not lack meaning.  Indeed, everyone who talks about them notes that they have an abundance of meaning – but that meaning is different to everyone.  Certainly not everybody can agree on the meaning and effectiveness of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ – our survey even incited some good humoured arguments amongst friends. And while these symbols are promoted by the Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, their meanings remain intriguingly unclear – which is perhaps their very magic.

To Each His Own

These revolutionary symbols are pervasive.  And at the same time, their flexibility ensures their survival.  The symbols and heritage has not stagnated since the eighteenth century; they are adaptable and have recently been interpreted by French associations and NGOs to reframe the integration debate.  

In a massive campaign in front of the National Assembly, Ni Putes Ni Soumise (Neither Whores Nor Submissive), an organisation that aims to promote the welfare of (primarily immigrant) women in the suburbs, appropriated the image of Marianne to encourage discussion on integration and to promote that an individual is first and foremost a French citizen, then a woman or a Muslim. Their posters showed that she was not just a white woman, the stereotypical Marianne embodied by Bridget Bardot – but rather they showed a veiled Marianne and another Arab Marianne.  The appropriation of this symbol was a conscious move, according to Anne-Charlotte Jelty of Ni Putes Ni Soumise, to show that the republic is multiethnic and not just white – and that perhaps one day we will find a greater proportion of minorities in the French National Assembly. Like Sautereau, Jelty firmly believes that the values of the republic, rooted in the Third Republic’s revolutionary base, are fundamental.  This fact, according to Jelty, necessitated the famous Marianne campaign – French women, regardless of their descent or religion, are French citizens who must feel represented by their Republic.  By broadcasting this message through a figure so familiarly French like Marianne, Jelty hoped to show a continuity in the changing demographics of France – to show that the form and France was the same, though the colour and demographics may not be.

A similar stance is taken by Nasser Ramdane, an advocate for the SOS Racisme organisation that aims to halt racism in France.  While SOS Racisme firmly believes in republican values, it does not see the model as being quite there, since the values have not transferred into a reality.   Ramdane criticises the abstract nature of the values, alluding to their sheer impossibility, and noting that   “the institutions do not reflect the ideals that we learn in school.”  Truly, Salomé’s poem does not quite fit into a world of burning cars. At the same time, however, Ramdane maintains the importance of the revolutionary heritage, stating that “it is something we all have – and something to aspire to.”  He talks of the French Tricolour flag being the flag of every French citizen, not just white men, and proudly notes that French flags were used in La Marche des Beurs (March of the Arabs) in the early eighties.  La Marche des Beurs was a demonstration that began in Marseilles and travelled through 43 towns, ending in Paris.  It highlighted the lack of acknowledgment of the burgeoning Arab population which had come to play an enormous role in France.  By appropriating the symbol of the Tricolour, the Arab population demonstrated their desire to become involve with the French republic, and their faith in its ideals.  Over a decade later, the Tricolour symbols was again appropriated to foster civic integration and – instead of the ‘red, white, blue’ trio, the colours changed to ‘black, blanc, beur.’  After the 1998 World Cup victory, Zinedine Zidane, who was born in Marseille to Algerian parents, and Lillian Thuram, the defender who scored two goals in the semi-final and grew up in the banlieue after emigrating from the Antilles, became heroes and embodied the changing face of France.  This idea of a multiethnic ‘black, blanc, beur’ France was celebrated by the populace and reappeared in the political debate, becoming something of a mantra for the new France.  Its success, according to   Ramdane, stems from the manipulation of a traditional symbol into something modern, and thus bridging the face of modern France with the country’s rich history.


Yet the very vehemence of the belief in these revolutionary values has sparked frustration that has recently and famously manifested itself in the riots of October and November 2005.  Disaffected youth, frustrated by the economic inégalité that they faced by employers, took to the streets.  Interestingly, it was conceived by the international press as a desperate cry for recognition of minority rights, a plea for multiculturalism and affirmative action.  While this conforms to the Anglo-American interpretation, sociologist Hugues Lagrange notes that it was just the opposite – the riots were in fact a desperate cry for the youth of the banlieue to become French, and integrate better into this republican model.  He maintains that the dissatisfaction was profoundly influenced by the ideal of ‘liberté, égalité and fraternité.’ 

This view is certainly endorsed by people living in the banlieue.  Yazid Kherfi, a 27-year old French ‘urban violence prevention’ consultant of Algerian descent, states that “young people who use violence or burn cars are expressing their anger, frustration and feelings of injustice and exclusion.  They want to be accepted as citizens, as part of the French society.  The only way to be heard is by using violence – because in France the government remains silent unless violence is used.  Their violence is a sign of hope, because it means that these young people still believe in the French nationality.”  Indeed, what the rioters really wanted was ‘liberté, égalité and fraternité’ – they wanted to be French.

Being and Nothingness

The popularity of this revolutionary heritage lies at the very heart of French debate on integration and minority rights.  There is a strong reluctance to accept debate outside of the revolutionary framework of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, outside realms watched over by Tricolour flags and Marianne.  And this may not be a bad thing.

Firstly, and somewhat ironically, this shows the success of France’s integration.  While on the one hand, what these symbols represent can lead to inclusiveness and cohesion, they could also spur violence as in the October and November riots.  France does not suffer from the problems of integration as experienced in countries like the United Kingdom and Australia, in which minority groups seek autonomy and distance themselves from the local population.  On the contrary, France finds itself with a minority population who overwhelmingly want to be considered as French and already embrace the values.  This is already an important step in integration policy, fostering the desire to contribute to a community.

Secondly, the revolutionary heritage provides a convenient justification for some controversial issues that have riled the country, namely the ban on headscarves in schools and the attempted solutions to the 2005 riots, harks back to the republican system and the cherished catchphrase.  Yet the ban on headscarves, while still a highly controversial and heated debate, has proven to be an overwhelming success – French revolutionary values of equity triumphed and, aside from an extreme but extremely small minority, feelings of ‘Frenchness’ and community have only increased – as indicated by a recent PEW poll.  

Thirdly, the revolutionary heritage provides France with a convenient safety net.  While the riots have catalysed positive initiatives to increase integration and assimilation, the gap between reality and the ideal is still there.  This disparity has started to empty symbols of meaning – while this revolutionary heritage shows people what to aspire to, and is defended to the death by many citizens, it lacks a clear and comprehensive meaning.  And the revolutionary symbols are hung onto so badly precisely due to the emptiness of their meanings.  This proves to be an interesting safety mechanism, as the more disaffected people become, and the more the gap grows, the more people will cling to these symbols and hence feel more a part of French society.  

Fourthly, the appropriation of revolutionary symbols by associations has encouraged productive discussion about the different face of France. The revolutionary heritage has thus struck a successful balance; the symbols are accessible enough so that they apply to everyone and, as witnessed in the Place d’Italie, they are defended vehemently by everyone.  Yet at the same time they are abstract and inclusive enough to allow for different and varying interpretations.  Their flexibility is shown by the ability of various NGOs and associations like Ni Poutes Ni Soumise and SOS Rascisme to appropriate these symbols to the ends of minority integration and furthering the debate about the changing face of France.  These symbols have proven a remarkable success for civil integration.

Few things unite the people of France so much as France’s revolutionary heritage.  In a country of such strong economic disparities and varying ethnic backgrounds, these state-sponsored slogans and symbols are what people cling onto in order to feel French, to feel part of a country and a sense of belonging.  These symbols have successfully bound an enormously different group of people – not just those immigrants to France, but also people from the DOM-TOMS in Asia and Latin America who still feel French and cling to the same symbols.   The revolutionary heritage is so conducive of a national community that it even makes Vaibhav, a  Sri Lankan, feel at home in France.





Florence Santereau, school teacher in an elementary school (CM 1 CM 2) in the 19th district of Paris, activist in the Comite Laicité-République 

Anne-Charlotte Jelty, administrative director of Ni putes Ni soumises

Nasser Ramdane, advocate of SOS Racisme

School children of 9-10 years old at school in 19th District

Survey in a multiethnic area of Paris, interview of immigrants and franco-french in the street

Asylum seekers in the Appeals Commission of Refugees


Huddleston Thomas, Science Po dissertation on the use of Marianne in contemporary France

Martin Arnold, Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, but only for some in Financial Times, Nov 07, 2005 

An underclass rebellion in The economist, Nov 10, 2005

Lecture of Hugues Lagranges, Suburban ghettoes

http://www.elysee.fr/ the Prime Minister website

http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/ the Foreign Affair website



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HIA Program:

France France 2006


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