A square in the Alsatian town of Kaysersberg. Nono vlf/Wikimedia. CC.
Once upon a time there was a land between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine. It is said that to the victor belong the spoils, and for centuries this region changed hands between French and German rulers, depending on who had won the most recent war.
Though historically its inhabitants speak German, it is culturally neither entirely German, nor French. Its most famous son, Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer, is known all over the world for his humanitarian work and philosophy of reverence for life. This land has also become a popular attraction amongst tourists, who marvel at the Strasbourg cathedral and enjoy the local Flammekueche and Riesling wine.
Yet you may struggle to find this region on recent maps of France. In 2014, the French government merged Alsace into a megaregion almost twice the size of Belgium, effectively depriving it of a legal and institutional existence. This move was almost unanimously opposed by Alsatian civil society and was met with large scale protests throughout the region. Many saw the loss of their regional council as a threat to their regional identity, economy and local democracy.
The opposition movement to the megaregion, now known as the Grand Est (Great East), has caused a revival of the Alsatian identity and made the Alsatian autonomist party the third political force in Alsace, ahead of president Hollande’s Parti Socialiste.
At the same time, in the most recent regional elections, the far right Front National scored above 30% in both Alsatian départements. How can a French nationalist party attain these electoral heights in a region with such a strong bicultural identity? Will the Alsatian movement be able to form a viable alternative?
In line with its long Christian democratic traditions, Alsace has since the end of the Second World War consistently and overwhelmingly voted for the centre-right. Les Republicains are the dominant party in Alsace and control most local assemblies. The centre left Parti Socialiste has historically been rather unpopular in Alsace, with the notable exception of Strasbourg, the only big city with a socialist mayor.
Despite the high scores of the Front National in Alsace, it is not among the territories in France with the highest votes for the far-right party. In fact, even within the Grand Est it doesn’t supply the most votes to Le Pen’s party. However the paradox remains that a region which has not been French for such a big part of its history can cast over 30% of its votes for a party whose views on French identity leave little room for regional diversity.
Michel Krempper is an Alsatian historian and has written numerous books on the Alsatian autonomist movement. He believes that the reasons for the Front National’s success in Alsace can be explained by the history of the region in the years that followed the Second World War. After invading and occupying France, Hitler integrated Alsace into his Reich and young Alsatians were forcefully enrolled to fight on the Eastern front, many never returning.
“As soon as the Nazis left, purges took place which led to a rejection of the Alsatian identity, because it is a Germanic identity,” explains Mr Kremmper. “Alsatians ended up being ashamed of being Alsatian because they were made to believe that everything German is also Nazi. This led to overzealous patriotism, encouraged by most political parties. It is on this basis that the Front National grew in Alsace. The Front National is the political expression of Alsatians who want to be more patriotic than the patriots.”
Alsatian philosopher Pierre Klein is a lifelong militant for French-German bilingualism in his region. He does not believe there is such thing as an ‘Alsatian’ Front National vote and notes the paradox of voting for a far-right party in a fiercely pro-European region.
The Alsatians have developed an inferiority complex towards France and get near mystical feelings when they hear ‘la Marseillaise’.
“There is no specific Front National vote in Alsace. The Front National vote in Alsace is a French vote in Alsace; it is identical to the rest of France. The same people vote Front National in Alsace as in the rest of France and this applies to all other parties,” he argues.
“Europe has long been an alternative identity for Alsatian; those who didn’t dare express themselves as Alsatians expressed themselves as Europeans, though this is also in decline. Yet today most Alsatians and especially the younger generations have a purely French identity.”
The Front National vote in Alsace is fuelled by the same general sentiment of discontent as in the rest of France. Ironically, it could be argued that it is a sign that the policy of assimilation France imposed on Alsace has been successful. Below the surface, it also reflects the struggle of Alsatians with their own identity.
‘There is a misunderstood patriotism and some Alsatians will simply vote for those who shout ‘Vive la France’ the loudest’ explains Mr Klein. ‘The Alsatians have developed an inferiority complex towards France and get near mystical feelings when they hear ‘la Marseillaise’.
The French state has, since the times of the Revolution, sought to marginalize regional languages. Unlike its neighbours, France has not given its regional minorities institutions which much power or means. Just like other regional languages of France, German (and its local dialect Alsatian –German) is in steep decline. Alsatian history has not been taught in school and Alsatians remained largely ignorant of their history. Alsace and the Alsatians seemed to be quietly heading to the dustbins of history leaving only some marketable folklore and gastronomy as traces of their existence.
But then the territorial reform happened. Then Prime Minister Manuel Valls proclaimed in the national assembly that there was no such thing as the Alsatian people. Within weeks demonstrators paraded in streets of all major Alsatian cities. The Alsatian red and white flag once again found a place in the popular conscience and the autonomist party Unser Land became the third political force in Alsace. Many wondered whether this movement would be able to siphon away votes from the French far right.
Alsatians protest in Colmar, France. Nicolas Ory-Genin. Photo used with permission of author.
“This is the dream of the Alsatian autonomists. They hoped to take voters away from the Front National. If people are to vote in protest, they might as well protest as Alsatians,” says Michel Krempper. “The regional elections of 2015 were held right after the terrorist attacks in Paris and national themes, such as security, came to the forefront. The autonomists hoped that people would vote for them against the Front National but they had a cruel reality check”.
Though the autonomists were the main political force in Alsace during the interwar years, their history became taboo after the Second World War. It is only in the twenty years that a new generation of Alsatian historians started to challenge the dominant French narrative and allowed Alsatians to rediscover their own political history.
“We have seen a certain renaissance of the idea of Alsace alongside new demands,” explains Pierre Klein. “It has been very symbolic. In Alsace, the political culture of this movement is yet to be built. Alsace has over the last century been robbed not only of its language and history but also of its culture.”
“Places like Catalonia and Wales have strong movements because they are linked to a political culture and economy. The Alsatian autonomists have to work seriously at creating a political culture and educating their members, activists and the Alsatian voters.”
“The average Alsatian voter does not have the culture to understand autonomism. In 1935 the Alsatian voters knew exactly what autonomism means because they experienced it 25 years before under the German Empire,“ adds Michel Krempper. “The autonomists today still struggle to speak the language of the people. The advantages of autonomy remain very abstract. Many Alsatians are not aware of the advantages a federal and decentralized political system brings to their neighbours, Switzerland and Germany.”
Despite making impressive electoral gains, the autonomists are still far from being the dominant political force in Alsace they once were. Though achieving double digit scores in the countryside and small towns, they still struggle to attract more urban voters. This is especially visible in the Alsatian capital Strasbourg where in the last regional elections they scored well below their Alsatian average.
Alsace has over the last century been robbed not only of its language and history but also of its culture.
The upcoming French elections are the most unpredictable in recent political history. With both mainstream left and right wing parties entering this race with weakened candidates, young centrist Macron looks like he can mount a serious challenge to the bipartisan system which has dominated French political life since De Gaulle. Yet, can Alsace expect anything from these elections?
“No candidate, either on the left or on the right has clearly indicated a willingness to grant Alsace its own institution,” adds Pierre Klein. “I do not see any really Girondins (federalists) candidates willing to challenge the Jacobins ideology.”
“‘It is a catastrophe,” laments Michel Kremmper. “Le Pen is explicitly opposed to linguistic diversity and regional institutions. I have also read Macron’s book on this subject but he has not expressed himself much on this issue. (Far left candidate) Mélenchon is entirely within the Jacobin tradition, pushed to radical levels.”
There are nevertheless some reasons for careful optimism in Alsace. The presidents of the two ‘départemens’ which make up Alsace have openly challenged the Grand Est. Both departmental councils have met and agreed to work towards a ‘Territorial Assembly of Alsace’ to ensure that ‘Alsace remains a political reality’. The fact that this new initiative comes from local politicians of les Republicains indicates a widely shared desire for a new Alsatian institution.
Different hypothesis exist as to what this could become; a merger of the two départements or a new territorial assembly with reinforced competencies. This initiative was brought about by local centre-right politicians, previously opposed to the Grand Est, who want an Alsatian instruction to preserve a local democracy.
“France is a democracy and if there is a strong demand it will have to give in,” believes Pierre Klein. ‘Our regionalism is not an ethnic-ism but a democracy-ism. We need to renovate French democracy and leave behind Jacobinism’.
France remains one of the most centralized states in Europe and will probably be so for some time. Nevertheless, even within this framework progress remain possible, as the Corsicans and Basques have recently demonstrated. In Alsace, grassroots activism has led to the continuous development of bilingual education, with more and more children acquiring fluency in German.
Alsace stands at a crossroad. It can either become diluted in a vast territory without history and identity, alienated from its neighbours and with a high support for French nationalism. Or it can fulfil its historic destiny and become a bridge between cultures, at the centre of Europe and proud of its diverse identity. To be or not to be, that is the Alsatian question.