On the night of November 13th, 2015, Parisians experienced coordinated terrorist attacks across the city. With family a block away from le Comptoir Voltaire Café, one of the restaurants hit by the terrorists, I was relieved to learn all were safe. But by the morning hours the death toll had reached the highest casualty rate seen in the streets of the French capital since World War II. The following day, President Holland rallied a nation in mourning and called for unity by displaying the French flag, Le Tricolore, across the land.
In the early aftermath of that tragic night, a renewed sense of French national pride was observed. Parisians who lived through these events would tell you that only during the liberation of Paris in 1945 and France's victory in the 1998 World Cup had so many flags been displayed in the city. In the weeks and months that followed, French newspapers reported increased levels of volunteers wanting to enlist in the Armed Forces to defend their homeland. President Holland increased military operations against ISIL in Syria while some parliamentary members called for enhanced intelligence collection capabilities.
I traveled to Paris shortly after the attacks. As the taxi made its way from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the city center, I was on the look out for a legion of French flags on the avenues and throughout the city. Memories of 9-11 back in the United States were still vivid as I recalled Americans rallying behind U.S. flags across large cities and small towns; cars covered with stickers and long lines of Americans of diverse beliefs and backgrounds seeking to buy a flag or pins decorated with Stars and Stripes. Surprisingly, two weeks later, I found no lasting similar display of national unity through Le Tricolore on a scale similar to that of the U.S. In Paris, one was hard pressed to find a French flag posted outside a private residence.
Having spent most of my childhood in France, I don't recall seeing any flags being displayed as one finds in so many U.S. neighborhoods. The first lasting impression of national flags I witnessed on French soil was at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. There, thousands of small American flags were edged against endless rows of white crosses against the backdrop of the sea, overlooking Omaha Beach, a key landmark of D-Day.
So, how does one explain the common presence of flags throughout the U.S.? Some interpret it as the outcome of large-scale marketing. It is similar to the United Kingdom where one can find the Union Jack printed on an endless stream of products, from mugs over to clocks. But commercialization overlooks the ease with which Americans have come to embrace the Stars and Stripes as a symbol of unity and national pride. Historically, both the US and French flag as we know them now emerged after a turbulent, revolutionary period gave way to a republic and hard won civil liberties.
However, the U.S. flag has grown to become a universal symbol of freedom, initially cemented with the American supremacy during World War II. From the ruins of Europe and well into the Cold War, it was embraced by Western democracies as a symbol of liberal values, equality and justice. To this day, hope and the pursuit of happiness inspire millions of immigrants in the U.S. and who want to come to the U.S. No symbol beyond the Statue of Liberty is more powerful to those who seek a better life, free from political and religious oppression or economic injustice.
By contrast, in France some may argue that "L'Amour de la Patrie" (Love of the Nation)often visually supported with images of the French flagwas forever tarnished in the trenches of the Great War when millions died under terrible conditions and inept leadership. It wasn't until World War II that Le Tricolore rose again as a symbol of resistance in occupied France. Under the leadership of General Charles de Gaulle, a Cross Lorraine was even added to the flag as a rallying cry to all French forces who refused German occupation and sought to regain lost territories. In France, touching on patriotism and the symbolic meaning of Le Tricolore begs to draw you into an intellectual argument over the residing value of any authority and the use of national symbols. Still, the constitution of the Fifth Republic defines le drapeau (the flag) as the single emblem of the nation. The law also designates the specific wear of l'echarpe Tricolore (shawl bearing the national colors) for elected officials during their various functions.
For some, the terrorist attacks from Charlie Hebdo to the Bataclan restored Le Tricolore as a proud symbol of the Nationbut to what extent? Its ethos of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity does not always resonate with the realities experienced by many French citizens who struggle socially and economically. Cultural and social integration represents the biggest challenge for thousands of immigrants who seek to find their voice and future beyond their immediate banlieus (suburbs). In a secular nation with a growing French Islamic population Le Tricolore bears little meaning to an entire new generation that strives for social acceptance and equal opportunities.
As French ponder whom is best suited to serve them during the upcoming presidential elections, they must not let le Tricolore become a symbol too closely associated with the extreme right. It comes to no surprise that for years, Le Front National used le Bleu, Blanc, Rouge as a national symbol of a "greater France" whose values and people have been left behind under the political interference from the European Union. The party makes great use of the national colors at political rallies, and its campaign marketing slogans appear directly taken from the previous fascist movements in Germany and Italy.
This message of intolerance is by now too familiar in the US and across the European landscape. France must embrace the rich history of its flag and in doing so remember General de Gaulle's words of caution that "Patriotism is when a love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first."