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French Diversity Raises an Eyebrow at Nicolas Sarkozy’s ‘Our Ancestors Are the Gauls’ Declaration

Asterix and Obelix, the Gauls (Aimer Béthune – public domain)

Asterix and Obelix, the Gauls (Aimer Béthune – public domain)

Nicolas Sarkozy has launched his 2017 French presidential campaign, and it already promises plenty of surprising statements.

As Sarkozy chases after votes from the right wing of his party, The Republicans, a recent comment is raising eyebrows: “Once you become French, your ancestors are the Gauls,” Sarkozy said early last week in a speech.

Setting aside the genealogical wizardry of this statement, the sixth president of France's fifth Republic appears to be trying to exploit widening rifts in the country by using this phrase about “our ancestors,” which has special historical significance.

The phrase first appeared in the history textbooks of the Third Republic, just after 1870, at the urging of historian Ernest Lavisse. Here's his explanation:

Il y a dans le passé le plus lointain une poésie qu'il faut verser dans les jeunes âmes pour y fortifier le sentiment patriotique. Faisons-leur aimer nos ancêtres les Gaulois et les forêts des druides, Charles Martel à Poitiers, Roland à Roncevaux, Godefroi de Bouillon à Jérusalem, Jeanne d'Arc, Bayard, tous nos héros du passé, même enveloppés de légendes car c'est un malheur que nos légendes s'oublient

In our earliest history, there is a poetry that we must instill in the souls of our young people in order to strengthen their patriotic sentiment. We must teach them to love our ancestors the Gauls and the forests of the druids, Charles Martel at Poitiers, Roland at Roncevaux, Godefroi de Bouillon in Jerusalem, Jeanne d'Arc, Bayard, all our past heroes, even when their stories are veiled in myth, because it would be a tragedy for our myths to be forgotten.

But the problem is that this assertion, promulgated in French history books right up to the 1980s, is inaccurate. As Suzanne Citron, author of the book “Le Mythe national: l'histoire de France revisitée,” explains:

Cette lecture du passé français à travers la grille d’une Gaule qui préfigurerait la ‘nation’ est obsolète et non sans effets pervers. D’une part elle conditionne spatialement le passé autour du seul Hexagone, excluant de ce passé tout ce qui géographiquement lui est extérieur, comme les Antilles ou même la Corse.

Elle confère à la durée de la présence sur le sol hexagonal présumé ‘gaulois’ une vertu quasi-magique au nom d’une antériorité généalogique qui serait synonyme de supériorité. D’autre part, et c’est le plus grave, l’idée d’une souche gauloise ethnicise fantasmatiquement la ‘véritable’ nation et nie la diversité raciale et culturelle qui a constamment accompagné la création historique de la France.

Understanding France's past from a perspective that regards Gaul as the precursor to “our nation” is obsolete and quite harmful. Firstly, it restricts our history within the limits of the French mainland, excluding everywhere that lies geographically outside it, like the French West Indies and even Corsica. It accords an almost magical property to a long-standing presence on the supposedly “Gallic” mainland, promoting the idea of such genealogical antecedents as synonymous with superiority. In addition, and this is more serious, the idea of Gallic origins bestows a fictitious ethnicity on the “true” nation and rejects the racial and cultural diversity that has always been part of France's history.

La Gaule celtique via contreculture - domaine public

Celtic Gaul, as described by Caesar. Public domain.

Mathilde Larrere, a historian specializing in the history of revolution and citizenship, notes that the phrase was already out of date during the colonial period:

A mantra taught in schools in the Third Republic and then in the colonies, which is somewhat ironic.

Sarkozy has reacted to the growing controversy by arguing:

Ça veut dire qu'il y a un roman national, que ce roman national ce n'est pas forcément la vérité historique dans son détail mais c'est un roman national peuplé de héros qui ont fait la France, et quand on est fils d'un hongrois ou fils d'un algérien et que vous arrivez en France, on ne vous apprend pas l'histoire de la Hongrie ou de l'Algérie, on vous apprend l'histoire de France. Le nivellement de la pensée unique sur le droit à la différence ça suffit.

What I mean is that there's a national narrative, not necessarily historically true in all its detail, but a national narrative peopled with heroes who made France what it is, and when you're the child of an Algerian or a Hungarian arriving in France, you aren't taught the history of Hungary or Algeria, you're taught the history of France. Enough of the dumbed-down, one-track thinking that says everyone has a right to be different.

Sarkozy apparently believes that accepting a common Gallic history is a basic requirement for assimilation into the French nation. How then is Sarkozy's statement perceived by those French who can be fairly confident that their ancestors are not Gauls?

Dessin sur les ancêtres gaulois via Aimer Béthune - Domaine public

“I'm not sure they'll believe it for long!” (Cartoon from Aimer Béthune—public domain)

History professor Thomas Snégaroff quotes the Martinique poet Aimé Césaire on the subject of “our ancestors the Gauls”:

Quand vous lisez à 6 ans que vos ancêtres étaient des Gaulois, qu'ils étaient blonds aux yeux bleus…Et l'instituteur et nous mêmes nous rigolions. Nous étions avant tout des nègres et créolophones.

When you're six years old and you read that your ancestors were Gauls, with fair hair and blue eyes… it wasn't only us who giggled, it was the teacher, too. First and foremost, we were black and we spoke Creole.

Meanwhile Josette Borel-Lincertin, the president of Guadeloupe's Departmental Council, deplores such a “narrow view of France”:

La République que nous défendons c'est précisément celle qui parvient à célébrer l'unité dans la diversité et certainement pas celle qui imposerait une vision étriquée de la France, de son identité et de son histoire. Je regrette cette escalade verbale de candidats qui, dans leur course effrénée derrière les électeurs du Front national, arrivent à en adopter les thèses plus éculées, les plus rétrogrades et les plus ineptes du point de vue historique.

[I regret] this verbal escalation from the presidential candidates who, in their headlong pursuit of National Front voters, have adopted their most threadbare, retrograde and historically absurd theories. […] The Republic that we support is quite clearly one that successfully celebrates unity in diversity and certainly not one that seeks to impose a narrow view of France, of French identity, and history.

Jean-Christophe Lagarde, the president of the Union of Democrats and Independents, also points to the French who came from the old colonies:

 dont les parents et les grands-parents se sont battus pour que nous soyons aujourd'hui un pays libre.  C’est une fiction scientifique, le peuple gaulois n’existait pas. C’est la composition de plein de peuples. La définition du citoyen français c’est de partager les valeurs de la France de liberté, d’égalité, de fraternité et de laïcité.

[These people] whose parents and grandparents fought for us to be a free country. […] It's make-believe; the Gauls didn't exist. They were an amalgamation of many different tribes. […] The definition of a French citizen is someone who shares the values of France: liberty, equality, fraternity, and the secular state.

And finally, speaking at a conference on slavery, Myriam Cottias, who heads the first French international centre for research on slavery, explains why the phrase carries such veiled meaning in the French West Indies:

(..) a choisi pour cette conférence le titre Nos ancêtres les Gaulois… La France et l’esclavage aujourd’hui. Pour les Antillais, cela fait sens. Je ne sais si tel est le cas au-delà des Antilles, mais la formule soulève une question très importante : la possibilité de resituer, dans un parcours historique, la relation des Antilles avec l’Hexagone pour essayer de penser une relation qui ne serait pas prise dans la relation coloniale. La traduction concrète [de nos ancêtres les Gaulois] est la suivante : les anciens esclaves deviennent des Français à part entière.  Voilà pourquoi « nos ancêtres les Gaulois », le mythe fondateur français, sera enseigné dans les colonies. Les Antilles sont devenues françaises et se sont structurées localement sur la base de l’oubli de l’esclavage. Il ne peut être qu’un mot d’ordre politique car c’est un oubli impossible, surtout lorsque les structures de travail demeurent les mêmes, que la hiérarchie raciale héritée de l’esclavage demeure la même. Ce qui n’avait pas été prévu, à mon sens, c’est que le discours universaliste, égalitariste de la République allait produire un tel oubli.

The title chosen for this conference is “Our ancestors the Gauls… France and slavery today.” For people from the French West Indies, that resonates. I don't know if it's the case outside the French West Indies, but the phrase highlights an important issue: whether, on our path through history, we can restore a relationship between the French West Indies and the French mainland, […] one that isn't shackled by the colonial connection. […] Liberty, equality, fraternity? What this actually means is that one-time slaves became, in terms of their legal rights, fully French. […] That's why the founding French myth of ‘our ancestors the Gauls’ was taught in the colonies. The French West Indies became French and were structured on the basis that slavery was forgotten. […] That can only be a political formula, because it's impossible to forget, especially when employment structures haven't changed […] and when the racial hierarchy bequeathed by slavery remains the same. […] What was not foreseen, in my view, was that it would be the Republic's universalist, egalitarian discourse that would be responsible for slavery being forgotten.

  • Zamprogno Augusta

    So what ? my ancestors for sure are not “gaulois” but “romains et germains” (I’m the first generation to be born in France) and it did not disturb me that at school I was taught otherwise.
    Une tempête dans un dé à coudre.

  • GeorgeMokray

    Sarkozy’s ancestors, the Magyars, raided Paris in the 930s, over a thousand years ago. Why he has denied this history is beyond me.

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