Can Europe Make It?

Alsace fights back: a French David vs. Goliath story

For years, the French state has tried to belittle, oppress and finally destroy Alsace and its culture. Now the Alsatians are fighting back.

Lucas Goetz
7 December 2014

Alsatians protest in Colmar, France. Nicolas Ory-Genin. Photo used with permission of author.

An ocean of red and white flags filled the streets of the Alsatian town Colmar last Satuday. A crowd of mostly young people was walking behind a banner that read “Alsatians we are, and Alsatians we will remain”. Slogans affirming the identity of this border-region were chanted both in French and in German. The crowd had responded to the call of the autonomist party Unser Land to demonstrate against the plans of the French state to merge the Alsace region in a “mega-region” with Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne. This would effectively deny Alsace any political existence.

Throughout its history Alsace has often changed hands between France and Germany. This has affected its culture and identity. However, since it returned to France in 1918, the state enforced a policy of total assimilation, forcefully imposing the French language and suppressing the autonomy acquired when it was part of the German Empire.

Seventy years onwards, only three percent of the children can speak the Alsatian dialect. Very few know its history. Nevertheless there have remained pockets of resistance: in the recent years parents have undertaken initiatives to open bilingual schools for their children. Historians published books challenging the French version of the history of Alsace. But very few had anticipated what followed when the French government announced its intention to merge Alsace in a mega-region, almost twice the size of Belgium. Have the Alsatians finally woken up from their long slumber?

Bernard Wittmann is an Alsatian historian. He is well known within the region for his books which seek to present history from an Alsatian point of view. For him this ‘mega-region’ is the final stage of a coherent plan, made in Paris, to deconstruct Alsace.

“There is a consistent plan in Paris that seeks to “normalize” Alsace. That is, to eliminate its linguistic, legislative and cultural particularities” he argues. “Since 1918 there is a desire in Paris to make sure that these particularities can no longer express themselves.”

France remains Europe's most centralized state. Its regional minorities are granted no specific rights. The constitution explicitly states that the sole language of the republic is French. Since 1918 the French state has sought to eliminate the use of the German language in Alsatian schools. This was met with fierce resistance from Alsatian autonomists during the inter war years. However, the autonomist movement was marginalized after the Second World War and the assimilationist policies from Paris met little resistance since.

Mr Wittmann, who has been involved in the autonomist movement for many years, was surprised to see the large number of young people at the recent demonstrations: “I think that this new generation doesn't have the complexes that my generation had. You understand that when we went to school we were punished for speaking our language.” He remembers: “My generation lived through that period of normalization, of assimilation, so they remained silent and did something else. But this younger generation is becoming aware that something has been taken away from them.”

Twenty-year old Luca Basso is part of this new generation. He set up a Facebook page against the fusion of Alsace with other regions. He remembers that in the initial stages it was difficult to get people on the streets: “Our big problem has always been that people are against something but are unwilling to do something about it. The first demonstrations, there were around 200-300 of us. Now that the government has pushed through the reform they are all in the street. We have demonstrations of 4000 or more people. I think that in the coming weeks we will see larger and larger numbers.”

Since then the movement has amplified. The first large demonstration in Strasbourg drew between 6500 and 15000 people. This has been followed by various demonstrations but also people proudly displaying the historical Alsatian flag, the rot un wiss, rarely seen for many years. In the meantime the French government remained deaf to the demands of the Alsatian people and politicians. When the matter was discussed in the national assembly, Manuel Valls , French the prime minister, stated that there “is no such thing as the Alsatian people, only the French people exist”.

“Valls told the assembly that there is no such thing as the Alsatian people. Thus, if we don't exist, it is easier to dilute something that doesn't exist.” analyses Mr Wittmann. “This was the final straw. One day I should write Valls a letter to thank him for all his declarations. Never would we have been able to wake up the Alsatian people otherwise. I have been to the demonstrations in Strasbourg and in Colmar. Never would I have thought that this would still be possible in Alsace.”

The overwhelming majority of the Alsatians and their elected politicians oppose the merger of Alsace with other regions. The reasons are not only sentimental. Many fear that it will have negative consequences for the Alsatian economy. Alsace heavily relies upon the neighbouring Germany for the cross- border economical exchanges.

“How will we conduct cross border agreements with the Baden-Wurttemberg state in Germany?” wonders Mr Wittmann. “We will have to ask Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne for permission because we will be a minority in the new region. It will be impossible.”

Many also fear for the fate of bilingualism in Alsace. Historically many Alsatians have worked in Germany and Switzerland, precisely because they were able to speak both German and French. Bilingualism in Alsace is therefore considered an economical asset, something which is much less the case in Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne.

“Lorraine has shown that it isn't interested in bilingualism: in Lorraine you have Moselle, a German-speaking area. There are one or two bilingual schools there but otherwise nothing at all has been done to promote the regional language.” regrets Mr Wittmann, “It is a problem that doesn't interest them. We will come with our concerns and also our experience. When it will come to voting for funding for these schools it will be very difficult.”

The government has redrawn the map without consulting the regions involved. The Alsatian regional council opposed the plan and an overwhelming majority of local politicians also opposed this fusion. Even the French senate opposed it. Yet, the French parliament, which has the final word, decided otherwise and voted in favour of this new map of France. No Alsatian member of parliament has voted in favour.

Luca Basso has few illusions about the state of the democracy in France: “The state of the democracy in France is poor; people vote but they do not know who or what to vote for. We are not being listened to in any way. In Paris they do to us as they please, they do not care at all that we do not agree, they are not even interested in discussing with us.”

Bernard Wittmann agrees: “This reform is a denial of democracy. In no Western democracy have we seen a government divide up the country in one night, without asking the people concerned anything. They have decided over our lives one night in Paris without asking us anything! It is incompressible.”

“Autonomists in Colmar challenge Paris” headlined the front page of one of the main regional newspapers the day after the demonstration in Colmar. A similar headline has probably not graced the cover of a newspaper since the inter war years. The word “autonomy” which has for a long time been a taboo in Alsace has now found its way back to the public debate.

Bernard Wittmann has long advocated autonomy for Alsace: “We are being pushed in this logic. How can we escape otherwise from this “mega-region” he says “The only way to get out of it is to demand autonomy. This is the only solution. From now on this is what the demands will be because there is no other possibility. If we want to affirm our particularities there must be a particular status.”

In the recent years, what is referred to as stateless nations have won increased autonomy. In Italy, the Germanic region of South Tyrol has managed to resist the assimilationist policies of the state. They have conquered a considerable degree of autonomy and language rights thereby becoming the richest region in Italy. In the United Kingdom, Wales and Scotland have obtained devolution. Yet France remains one of the most centralized states in the European Union, with all powers concentrated in Paris, with only mere crumbs left for local authorities.

“Fighting for autonomy is the trademark of the times we're living in. Behind this autonomy there is also an idea of man.” argues Mr Wittmann. “We, autonomists consider mankind to be responsible. The Jacobin in Paris is suspicious of the people. So everything is directed from the top because for them only the top can think. It is pyramid: at the bottom you have the citizens and the orders come from above. We autonomists believe that you have the people, that you can trust the people, and that people can have responsibilities”

Both Bernard Wittmann and Luca Basso both agree that things will not go back to as they were: “We will seek to build a large movement, to synchronise all the efforts” says Lucas Basso “we are no longer expecting 1000 people, we expect 10 000. We will continue with actions every week. The struggle continues and we will not stop.”

Bernard Wittmann is convinced that the movement is not a flash in the pan “I am persuaded that people are becoming conscious and when you have become conscious that you have been in a relation of dominating–dominated, from that moment onwards you do not go back. And that is exactly what will happen.”

As Europe is celebrating the centenary of the First World War, many will remember the promise made by the French general Joffre to the Alsatians in 1914: “France will bring you, with the liberties it has always stood for, the respect of your liberties, of the Alsatian liberties, of your traditions, your beliefs and you habits. I am France: you are Alsace. I bring you the kiss of France.” It seems that one hundred years later, Alsatians are more united than ever in their determination to make sure the kiss of France will not be the kiss of death. 

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