The subject of national identity is a slow-burner in France. It came to light again during the Republicans’ primaries when François Fillon was chosen as the right-wing candidate for the 2017 French presidential election. Against this backdrop the novel Double nationalité by the Franco-Hungarian writer Nina Yargekov was awarded the Prix de Flore.
Nicolas Sarkozy is concerned about the question of what it means to be French and how the essence of French nationality and citizenship can be defined, delimited and protected. As French President he founded the controversial “Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Development” that was promptly abolished again once he was voted out of office. But Sarkozy remained loyal to his pet subject, repeatedly drifting to the far right of his party and openly flirting with the far-right extremist positions of the Front National. As one of the favourites in the right-wing primaries, he launched his campaign with a speech on “identité nationale” in which he announced that though his father was Hungarian, he had still opted for France and his ancestors were therefore Gaullists. That was destined to provoke polemical debate. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Minister of Education, provided a brief history lesson and a reminder that alongside the Gaullists, the Romans, Normans and Celts were also among the French forefathers, just like Corsicans, Creoles, the inhabitants of Guadeloupe, Arabs, Italians and Spanish.
The 36-year-old translator and writer, Nina Yargekov, also responded to Sarkozy in a television show that, of course, one can decide to embrace a nationality and feel exclusively French. “It’s nice if that makes him happy, but that isn’t the only model; there is enough space in the human heart for two nationalities”, she replied and devoted an almost 700-page novel to the latter alternative. Published in September with POL, in November Double nationalité was awarded the Prix de Flore for its playful and humorous treatment of the complicated subject.
Yargekov, who has Hungarian roots and grew up in France, also playfully approaches her own dual identity. Her publisher presents her profile: “Nina Yargekov was born abroad, in France, (…) in a community of 29,660. She loves lemon tartlets with meringue and her favourite book is the French civil code.”
Her novel is about a woman who has a memory problem and cannot remember her identity. The woman always refers to herself in the second person: “You realize that you are very tall (…) and wear a sparkling tiara on your head” – so she could also be you, and this makes the reader the chief protagonist of this novel. Just imagine that upon arrival at the airport you notice that you own two passports – one French, and one from ‘Yazigia’, a tiny Eastern European country that nobody knows. And nobody knows where you live and whether you feel more French or Yazigian. To explore these issues in greater depth the protagonist subjects herself to so-called ‘national stimuli tests’. How does she respond to Yazigian folk music? What does she feel about pictures of the 1998 football World Cup when France won the world championship, or finding out about the Algerian war and its stories of torture? “That’s exactly what you thought (…). You’re not affected by this. (…) A true French woman would react with embarrassment. Lost for words. She would have a lump in her throat.”
As this method produces no conclusive result, the protagonist decides to lead a double life: she tells her French friends that she lives in Paris and only occasionally travels to Yazigia to work as an interpreter; she doesn’t miss an opportunity to complain about Yazigia. She tells her Yazigian family the opposite story and spreads bad gossip about the French.
Finally, necessity becomes a virtue and after a long process of self-discovery the woman realizes that she is ‘bi-’: bicultural, binational and bilingual. The identity conflict seems to be resolved, if… well, if only she didn’t live in France where dual nationality is forbidden. This is an allusion to currently planned legislation by François Hollande – since the terror attacks, the Socialists are also urgently looking into the subject – according to which those born overseas, that is, naturalized French men and women with dual nationality could have their French citizenship withdrawn in case of terror attacks or other infringements of French rights. That would certainly suit Marine Le Pen who has campaigned for fifteen years for an end to dual nationality to save those in question from their “inner conflict in view of the double duty of allegiance”.
In such a divided country like France – more than ever, it confuses the topics of immigration, terrorism and national identity in the light of the latest attacks – any de-escalation of the tension is welcome. It is also important to associate abstract concepts like “national identity” or “dual nationality” with personal experiences or stories that closely resemble reality – and this intelligent novel does exactly that.
By Katja Petrovic
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright