Solidarity is a central element of national identity in most of Europe. But such solidarities are today under pressure from globalisation, which undermines all forms of national identity, from the economic burdens imposed by favoured groups that demand extension of their privileges, and by groups not favoured that demand their rights, and from immigrant communities, poorly assimilated into the countries that have received them.
This is the most pleasant time of year in southern France. The sun, the scenery, the food and the wine are just the same as a week ago. But the beaches are now almost deserted and you can walk into restaurants in which you had to fight for a table only a few days earlier. It is the time of the rentrée.
There is no equivalent word in English because there is no analogous concept. There is a holiday season everywhere. But nothing quite resembles the mass migration that occurs in France, nor its abrupt end. The motorways from the south to Paris are choked with returning holidaymakers and television, newspapers and advertising are focused on the rentrée.
For economic Francophobes the phenomenon has a simple explanation. The intrusive, centralising French state demands that every school begin lessons on the same day. There is some validity in this explanation but it is less than the whole truth. Regulations are the product of the society in which they operate. Practical considerations and conventions mean that in most countries schools resume in the autumn within a few days of each other. The French difference is the celebration of the rentrée as a national event. Such shared public activities play a big role in defining French identity. The communal pistou soup in one hill village above Menton will be followed by a lavender festival in a neighbouring community. The misery on the motorway ranks with Bastille Day, pétanque in the village square, fast trains, the Musée d’Orsay, terroir and, above all, shared culinary and linguistic traditions in describing what it is to be French.
Solidarity is a central element of national identity in most of Europe. It is not an accident that the Polish movement that began the process which led to the collapse of the Russian empire was called Solidarity. Solidarity takes many forms. Most small European states have a distinctive language and homogeneous culture. Solidarity in adversity unites the British. This cultural trait is its best in the evacuation of Dunkirk or the business-as-usual response to the July 7 bombings in London.
In France, solidarity is perhaps more extensive than anywhere – an all-embracing solidarity that means that overprivileged public employees and grotesquely subsidised farmers enjoy wide sympathy even as they halt the trains and block the roads.
Images of areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina displace pictures of the rentrée on French television screens, a reminder of how small a role solidarity plays in American national identity. The American reaction to disaster is not, as Europeans do, to socialise misfortune, but to cast around for someone to blame. When the people to blame live outside the US, this has a unifying effect, although the consequences of the unity are not necessarily constructive. But when the proximate cause is a natural disaster beyond the scope of US military power, and the longer term causes are diffuse and domestic, the gap between America’s capabilities and its response seems astonishingly wide.
There are many sources of American exceptionalism, although the pictures from New Orleans leave little doubt that race is one. America’s national identity was built differently – the “melting pot” of immigrants from many backgrounds – and related less to a common cultural tradition than a shared dream of personal advancement. The imposition of a single identity attached value to symbols and structures – the flag and the Constitution – rather than to shared values.
But in Europe today – and specifically in France – such solidarities are under pressure. From the globalisation which undermines all forms of national identity, from the economic burdens imposed by favoured groups that demand extension of their privileges, and by groups not favoured that demand their rights, and from immigrant communities, poorly assimilated into the countries that have received them. The contrasting pictures from home and abroad on French television this week illustrate both the strength of common ties, and their frailty.