I live in Paris. Like many people here, I spent last weekend frantically scrolling through Facebook for updates on friends and acquaintances.
By Sunday, I’d noticed something strange. Friends from across the world had filtered their profile pictures in blue, white and red, urged on by Facebook itself. Many of those who made the switch had no particular connection to Paris. For most, it was a simple, one-click sign of solidarity.
In France though, the flag has taken on a more complicated meaning. It’s no longer simply a symbol of the triptych known around the world: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Rather, many French citizens have come to see waving the “tricolore” publicly as expressing support for the France’s extreme right, and for their anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and racist policies.
Since its founding in 1972, the leading far-right party, the Front National, has sought to claim national symbols as its own. It began in 1979 by establishing an annual parade to celebrate Jeanne d’Arc’s 1429 liberation of the city of Orléans. In past years, the party has sought to infuse other symbols, including the French flag and “La Marseillaise,” with its values.
In 2002, Front National founder Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the country by making it to the presidential election run-off. In the next election cycle, both sides of the political spectrum sought to reclaim these symbols and reinfuse them with their universal meaning. At a 2007 party meeting in Marseille, the socialist presidential candidate encouraged her fellow party members to join her in a rendition of “La Marseillaise,” newsworthy itself. The event was declared “an historical step for the left, that had previously thought it had to abandon the national anthem to the extreme right.”
However, it was the right, with Nicolas Sarkozy, that came out on top in struggle over symbols. Sarkozy was elected president in 2007. He followed through on his campaign promise to create a Ministry of Immigration, Integration and National Identity. On Nov. 12, 2009, (six years to the day before last week’s slaughter), Sarkozy announced the opening of a national discussion on French identity. The French people had lost their bearings, he said, and “with our heads in the sand, we leave the way open for all forms of extremism.”
From the beginning, though, this debate was tinged with anti-Muslim sentiment. In his November speech, for example, Sarkozy took aim at Islam, saying bluntly, “France is no place for the burqa.” In an editorial published a month later in “Le Monde,” Sarkozy addressed the French Muslim population directly, writing: “In our country, where Christian civilization has left a deep mark, where the values of the Republic are an integral part of our national identity, everything that could be seen as a threat to this heritage and these values would condemn the emergence, necessary as it is, of a French Islam, to failure.”
The conversation about national identity morphed into an anti-immigrant rallying cry from politicians on the right. Sarkozy continued to use this rhetoric through to the next election, in 2012.
While many blame Sarkozy’s adoption of the Front National’s vocabulary and platform for his loss to François Hollande, the message nonetheless found an eager audience in France. In 2014, much to the socialist party’s chagrin, the Front National made unprecedented advances in the municipal elections. Eleven additional cities elected mayors supported by the FN, a first in the party’s history it held so many municipalities in its power.
Last May, the Reporters Without Borders founder-turned-ultra-conservative Béziers mayor Robert Ménard ordered an informal survey of the ethnic origin of children attending his city’s public schools based on the children’s first names (such surveys are illegal in France). He declared that at least 80 percent of the children in Bézier’s public schools are children of immigrants because of their “Muslim sounding” names. “Two-thirds of children in pre-school and primary school in Béziers are of immigrant origin. I think that’s too many,” he said during a talk show on French public television.
A year earlier, the Front National mayor of a town in northern France canceled the annual commemoration of the abolition of slavery. In line with his party, the mayor denounced the socialist government’s constant mode of “self-guilt.” In 2012, the FN had launched a petition against this “permanent repentance,” stating: “We recall that it is not by wallowing in anti-national masochism and hatred of our history that we will provide our young with a future.”
All of this has turned some Parisians off to posting the French flag. “Ever since I was small, when I think about the French flag, I think of the flame of the Front National,” which is colored like the French flag, says Mathilde Seguela, 20. “It’s a French symbol, but it has been taken up by so many different groups that I don’t see myself putting it up on Facebook.”
But not everyone feels this way. Antoine Léaument, a political activist and supporter of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, for example, says it’s a shame that some of have come to see the flag and other national symbols (like “La Marseillaise”) as belonging to the extreme right. For him, the flag remains a symbol of democracy born out of the French Revolution: the monarchy in white, flanked by the colors of Paris, red and blue – the people.
“These symbols, like the flag and ‘La Marseillaise,’ are the vectors of our values – equality, love, fraternity, solidarity,” said Léaument. “In difficult times like this, these symbols are so strong that they allow us to show our solidarity with others.” The fact that people around the world displayed French flags and sang ‘La Marseillaise’ in the aftermath of the attacks, said Léaument, shows that “these national symbols are also international symbols of solidarity.”
That attitude was on display on Monday at noon, when a minute of silence was held across France. Seguela participated at her university, known for its left-leaning student body. After the minute was through, the students remained silent. Then some in the crowd began to sing the Marseillaise. No matter how fraught with meaning these national symbols might be, in difficult times, they still provide refuge for many.
As Eymen Sfaxi, a student who used the Facebook filter, told me “the flag gives you the impression that you are part of a community, which is something you don’t necessary feel all the time. We’re all part of the same country, and we’re in it together when things go wrong.” Audrey Regnault, another student, agreed, “Displaying these symbols shows that we’re all united, no matter our opinions. And seeing that we’re united is reassuring,” she said.