French national identity was thrust to the heart of the presidential campaign yesterday, as Right and Left clashed over the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal’s controversial call for every household to own a tricolour flag and for all to learn the national anthem by heart.
The tussle over what it means to be French and which candidate best lays claim to the issue has gathered pace since Miss Royal shocked fellow Left-wingers by ordering La Marseillaise to be played at the end of her public meetings last week, supplanting the Internationale—the traditional Socialist anthem.
French football fans in red, white and blue wigs fly their flag but many people in France view overt patriotism as vulgar
Originally a revolutionary song, La Marseillaise is today more associated with the Right. Critics on the Left suggested that Miss Royal’s move was intended to court the far-Right vote claimed by the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen.
But Miss Royal, who is trying to catch up with the Right-wing frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy in voting intentions ahead of next month’s elections, insisted that there was a clear distinction between “the nation, of which one must be proud, and nationalism”, and that the symbols of the republic should not be left to the Right or extreme Right.
“A head of state should encourage every French person to be proud to belong to the nation,” she said on Sunday.
Despite their reputation for fierce, at times arrogant, pride in the nation, the French do not have the same flag-waving culture as in Britain: during the football World Cup, for example, the sale of tricolour flags enjoys nothing like the success of the cross of Saint George.