Friday, January 26, 2007

Lessons in International Diplomacy

On Monday, one of the leading French presidential contenders, Segolene Royal, told Parti Quebecois leader Andre Boisclair (for those who are unaware of Canadian politics, he is leader of the separatist party in Quebec) that she endorses "the sovereignty of Quebec." Although this may be sweet news to the ears of many Quebecois separatists, it does raise a few issues. First, Ms Royal, has made comments with little or no comprehension of Canadian history, and second, her insensitivity to Canadian internal affairs has now opened the door for Canadians to comment on the internal affairs of France.

Now on many Canadian minds are the regions of France with very distinct cultures, languages and ethnic groups, groups that are fighting to keep their distinct culture intact, protect their traditional languages, and in some cases also have separatist movements. The two that come to my mind are Normandy and Brittany.

Normandy has a long history as a distinct political entity going all the way back to the Viking era. In fact, the fiefdom of Normandy was created for the Viking leader Rollo. Rollo had besieged Paris, but in 911 entered into a vassalage to the King of the West Franks and in this manner legally gained the territory he had formally conquered. The Vikings intermarried the locals and adapted the Gallo Romantic language and became known as the Normans a mixture of Scandinavians, Hiberno-Norse, Orcadians, Anglo-Danish and indigenous Gauls. Since then, this region has been tossed back and forth between England and France, yet they have fervently held onto their language, unique culture and cuisine.

Brittany is another region of France that was a former independent kingdom. It is considered one of the six Celtic nations. Despite its history of being pummled about in wars and loosing its independence, Breton has remained the language of the entire population. This is also despite active efforts by France (through laws and economic pressures) to stamp out this language. In fact, at the beginning of the 20th century, it was forbidden to "spit on the ground, and to speak Breton."

Please note that I am in no way endorsing separitist movements in these areas, I am simply making a point that perhaps Ms Royal should take a closer look at similar political terrain back home before putting her nose into affairs that are frankly none of her business.

For further info on this political gaffe, check out the following articles:
Harper rebukes Segolene Royal for comments on Quebec sovereignty
Vive la Normandie libre!
Maybe Segolene Royal is not ready for the world stage just yet

4 comments:

Winters said...

A fascinating post, Carla. I arrived here by way of "The Fool."

I am currently living in Paris, and am acutely aware of the issues you raise.

The French political situation is fraught at the moment, to say the least. Jean-Marie Le-Pen's National Front party has enyoyed a lot of popular support recently. He was one of the two contenders in the "final round" of the last Presidential elections.

For all Segolene Royal's maladroitness, the alternatives are considerably more frightening.

A great blog you have, Carla. I look forward to returning when I have a little more time, to give your archives the attention they deserve...

The Fool said...

Damn, Carla. I have to file this one with the subject of "god" - my mouth just ain't big enough. I'm glad Winters dropped through. I was thinking of doing a shout out to attract the French Quarter to this one. I'll drop a note at Lady Bonds to see what her insights are on this...or better yet...go and read her latest article on my country's export of 'democracy' to Iraq, and the impact on children and education. And join in! I left a rather long ramble as a first reply...which sometimes stymies others (me & my big mouth - the dark is everywhere). ;)

Lady Bonds said...

I certainly agree that Segolene Royale's comments were hardly diplomatic, and not terribly informed. But your post certainly raises the question of *why* she would say such things--basically, what business is it of her's, and why does she care?

Given that she can count Jean-Marie Le Pen as strong competition, she's up against some strong nationalist rhetoric. And simplistic, nationalist rhetoric is appealing to a fairly xenophobic nation in the throes of immigration debates.

I would venture to guess that her motivations in taking such a stand have to do with linking herself both to the Gaullist tradition (de Gaulle was famously in favor of Quebec's sovereignty) and, more generally, to the French language, which remains a source of pride for French people of *all* social strata. Thus, supporting the sovereignty of a French-speaking area would appeal on a very basic level to many French people. (This seems a simplistic argument, but it's difficult for anglophones to comprenhend the status that the French language has among its own speakers).

What's curious is that Royal is running on the Socialist Party ticket, and Gaullists are often social conservatives. Was it a pitch for votes? If so, it didn't seem to work: So far as I can tell, the reaction to Royal's comments in France has been divided by right and left--the right, who doesn't generally favor separatist movements, found her comments to be inappropriate. The left was divided, but weren't particularly miffed by what she said.

But I don't necessarily agree with the Quebec-Normandy/Bretagne parallel. The two are really not comparable in terms of the effect they have on political and popular culture. True, there are strong elements of regional culture that remain in France, including language (especially in Brittany), but any notions of independence are not taken seriously, nor are they spoken of. Both in the popular imagination and in the political arena, Quebec's sovereignty is far more pervasive.

The Basque region might pose more of a problem, but again, in France, separatist movements do not have the same weight or legitimacy that they have in Quebec (or Spain, who obviously bears the brunt of the Basque separatist movement).

Good post; it raises important issues.

Carla said...

Winters, thanks for dropping by and contributing your insights. Until this particular gaffe, I had been rather in the dark about French politics. I'll definitely have to try to get more up to speed on some of the issues France is facing.

Fool, you have such a way with words ;). Thanks for the heads up about Lady Bonds' post, an excellent article. I hear you about the "dark."

Lady Bonds, in doing a little more digging, it seems that perhaps Ms Royal was led to the guillotine. Separist leaders in Quebec have a tradition of seeking statements from leaders of other nations which might be interpreted as sympathy towards their cause. It would be difficult to say for sure if at the moment of her comment she had thought about the stir it might cause in both Quebec and in France. From what I have read of her recently, she strikes me as one who speaks before she thinks. Her comments most certainly were not as inflammatory nor as premeditated as de Gaulles but they were, nonetheless, inappropriate. Having lived in Quebec, I certainly understand what you are saying with regards to the status of French amoung francophones. Quebec has enacted language laws that in the rest of our country would be considered unconstitutional and would never hold up in court. But some of these same laws have been punitive to francophones. For example, in Quebec, English immersion is illegal, but not French immersion. As a result, anglophones are the ones who end up billigual and thus have an unfair advantage in getting the best jobs in cities like Montreal where billigualism is essential. Francophones are paying huge amounts of dollars to send there children to English summer camps and language schools in other provinces and countries. I would like to get into some of the issues addressing the sovereignty movement in Quebec, but alas, it is late and I am tired. Thanks for your insightful contributions.