This week, the offloading of the Sea Watch 3 by Captain Carola Rackete, and this terrible photo relayed by all the media in the world : Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter Valeria drowned in the Rio Grande, made me want to talk about « Nation », « national identity » , the figure of the stranger and more widely otherness and hospitality…

 After the year 1000, external invasions end in Western Europe. Each village chooses its customs but also its care system at the communal scale in a world in which the hospitality of the poor is still a central Christian principle. Gradually the rule of law appears, reinforced by a centralized monarchy as well in France as in England. It’s an important period for mobility: mobility of people, goods but also know-how. The Middle Ages is built thanks to the movement of merchants to the rhythm of major fairs, pilgrimages, journeys of journeymen and apprentices from one site to another, students who take advantage of the birth of major university centers to perfect their education and their openness to the world… Cosmopolitanism is then the norm, both in trade and noble marriage and the development of kinship throughout Europe. The French Revolution designs external borders, revolutionary and Napoleonic wars give birth to nationalisms, and the « Nation », a concept transcending the monarch and the emperor and involving, both in France and in England, a sense of belonging to an « eternal » historical entity, and beyond, a cleavant identity between those of the inside and those of the outside, between the national people and the foreigner. 

 With the National state, drawing its own boundaries, its own language, and its own beliefs, the mobility decreases. The history of this mobility over the centuries is that of anonymous immigrant workers, Italians silk craftsman, Dutch shipbuilders, Belgian miners in the coal mines of northern France, Poles, Swiss and Germans… All of them participating to the industrial revolution process, in the middle of the 19th century. The nations are looking for a history favoring the cohesion of the number, a reflection on the identity, a reflection which reborn cyclically in the political discourses of the XXth century which, this time intend to define « the national identity ».

 What is a national identity ? An identity of permanence, of « sameness » (mêmeté) to use Ricœur’s words? A lockian identity? An identity based on the relation to oneself, the ipseite, allowing to elaborate a story of existence through permanent change? Clearly the national identity is an identity of permanent change, but it is also determined by the delimitation of a territory by a people. The nation becomes a nation only if it considers itself as such, otherwise it is the specter of balkanization that appears around the corner. Seeking a permanent national identity reduces the nation to a « scared little thing » fearing extinction in any transformation. National identity is a term very strongly connoted in french. In the 1960s, the rise of local identities and community claims grew, particularly through some regionalists discourses denouncing the imperialism of the dominant identity and presenting the regions as oppressed nations. The national identity, (allowing to seal a discursive alliance between notables monarchists and Bonapartists with the right-wings party resulting from a certain disintegration of the republican circles), is then « recovered » by the most right-wing parties on the political spectrum presenting the figure of the foreigner as a vital danger to the nation1. This speech had already been fought by the anarchos-syndicalists before 1914, while the traditional left wing socialist was imposed the debate by the right wing. In the light of history, it appears that far from being a reality, « national identity » is more and more like the favorite communication tool of political parties seeking legitimacy, (often security policies), seeking to establish their power by evading the real question of substance, the social question, by giving rise to a widespread feeling of insecurity among the citizen and by using the figure of the foreigner as a scapegoat responsible of the difficulties encountered by our society, by offering suffering populations, often the least educated, an alternative to their own feelings of guilt largely developed through the cynical meritocratic fable… Poverty as an individual fault, or as a negative externality of a profitable system? Inequalities are not currently the consequences of failed systems, but the marginal hazards of an economic model based on the success of a small number of insiders to the detriment of the people to whose some political speeches are « sold » , particularly, the « Identitarian hate speeches » as a « group psychotherapy ».

 An easy accusation that blames an external factor, instead of questioning the substance of the problem : a hard, predatory, neo-liberal state abandoning the ideal of the welfare state by devouring as time goes by, each piece of this inclusive system symbol of the solidarity identity of France : public hospital1, public transportation, even if the most precarious are relegated to the borders of major cities, without any possibility of public transport and without any possibility of investing in sufficiently clean cars corresponding to the new standards, and not allowed to go to their place of work by car, during pollution peaks, the public service of education, the post office …

 The semantic shift is clear: the patient and the user becoming clients …

 The end-programmed of the public services is nothing else in practice, that the dilution of the social bond and the spirit inscribed in the republican trilogy : freedom to live and to act to the limit of the freedom of others, equality between people regardless of their origins, their colors, their personal convictions, fraternity uniting members of the social body in a cooperative and inclusive system.

 Today, in the context of Europe’s migration crisis, cards seem to be redistributed between central authorities defending their own survival, afraid of losing their sovereignty and generally in charge of redistributive systems, and local or communal authorities reviving ancient hospitality. Sicily teaches us much more about these traditions of welcoming and acceptance of otherness than any long discussion on the subject, the central state refusing any possibility of receiving and offloading of the humanitarian ships helping the migrants in danger, and the islanders helping them by opening their ports in the name of a universal citizenship and the right of peoples to live safely with dignity, whatever their origin, culture and history. Beyond this Italy presented in France and more widely in Europe, as « populist » and xenophobic, there is a real power struggle between the central state and local or regional decision-making centers as the refusal of several mayors of large cities to enforce the anti-immigration decree of Interior Minister Salvini. Palermo, Naples, Florence, Parma, denounce a violation of human rights and appeal to suspend the application « for what is the competence of the communes », fighting in particular for access to care for people having a humanitarian residence permit.

 Contemporary political discourses abound with occurrences and celebrations of social mobility, geographical mobility, inclusion … even as the resurgent rhetoric of the nation-state tends to re-establish external borders, but also internal to Schengen, and to transform mobility into freedom for the better-off and into human tragedies for the most disadvantaged. Until recently, in France, citizens providing relief to migrants both in the Mediterranean area and in the jungle of Calais, brought to court2. Citizens condemned for an « offense of solidarity » until July 6, 2018 and the recognition by the Constitutional Council of the primacy of fraternity including humanitarian aid under a constitutional fraternal solidarity, on the « offense of solidarity », recalling the « offense of hospitality » denounced by Derrida3. Citizens who, in the end were only guilty of having awakened an ancestral anthropological tradition4, going against the « national imagination », that of hospitality and welcoming of otherness, directly following Derrida’s reflection on ethics as hospitality, insisting on the antinomy between the politico-legal laws of hospitality, and the ethical law of « absolute, unconditional, hyperbolic hospitality » requiring a welcoming without conditions5.

 Beyond these humanitarian issues, there is in fact the broader question of the role of the state in a context where the security state is confronted by many citizens in solidarity, inviting to rethink the human globalization, the exile and the new urban contexts… the question of empowerment and / or emancipation of the host city or village, in relation to the central authority. The debate recalls the Kantian formula of the right to any foreigner not to be treated as an enemy but also Nouss claiming a « right of exile », the « universal right to mobility » of Withol de Wenden, and Agier, quoting Tassin, insisting on the fundamental fact that hospitality corresponds to a political realism, « a pure intelligence of the world », which « prevents war and creates the conditions for peace ».

 How can we not see it as the incarnation of common sense in a world in which, beyond the question of the migrations of poverty and political despotism, the question of forced climate migration is posed due to repeated famines, lack of drinkable water and land available for cultivation … For or against, right or wrong, one thing is clear: it will be easier to change the hard and inadequate standards of our economic systems than to go away form Earth … It remains to be seen what the cities and / or the regions would do / will make with a greater autonomy / emancipation towards central powers because if some are already enthusiastic about the smart city projects that are emerging everywhere, some defenders of democracy remain more measured and more skeptical6

4M.Agier, L’étranger qui vient, Seuil, Paris, 2018.

Une réflexion sur “The Nation and the foreigner

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