Why national symbols have a bright future ahead of them. Even more so today than thirty or forty years ago.
France vs. Ukraine last Tuesday night was more than just a football game: it was also a singing contest. The star of the evening was the ‘Marseillaise’. The ‘official’ version before kick-off was followed by a minimum of six or seven spontaneous intonations during the match, and eventually topped well after the final whistle by striker Olivier Giroud, when he grasped the stadium speaker’s microphone and invited his teammates to howl yet another one.
The unexpected Marseillaise performance was part of the reconciliation efforts by a team that had been so much criticised for not ‘loving the blue jersey’ and that was longing for redemption. Touching, really.
At the same time, there was something very desperate about this insistent invocation of the national symbol. As if the Marseillaise was the only common language between the players and the public. A function which is no doubt facilitated by the fact that its belligerent lyrics – about ‘impure blood watering the furrows of our soil’ – have become blatantly absurd and carry no concrete meaning any more.
How times have changed! Had the great French team of the 1980s given the same kind of post-match choral performance, they would have ridiculed themselves. In the wake of May 1968, the national symbols cherished by Gaullism were considered old-fashioned by many; the anthem’s lyrics were widely criticised, and Serge Gainsbourg even released a Reggae version called ‘Aux armes et caetera’ – provoking (and probably taking delight in) a polemic with the far-right.
It is not by accident that national symbols had their comeback towards the end of the 1990s, when tendencies of economic and cultural globalisation (and Europeanisation) were perceived as threatening and destabilising. The French World Cup of 1998 may be seen as a turning point – people rediscovered the Marseillaise and you could hear it all over the country during the last ten days of the tournament.
Fifteen years later, in a period of acute identity anxieties, the national anthem is, somewhat helplessly, perceived as one of the rare ‘anchors’ in an increasingly ‘liquid modernity’, to quote Zygmunt Baumann’s pertinent expression. It provides an illusion of stability in the quicksands of globalisation. It reassures about community belonging in times of permanent uncertainty and blurred boundaries. It resuscitates feelings of unquestioned loyalty to a community of destiny which is no longer one in a society whose socio-economic categories are drifting apart. There is reason to believe that national symbols like the Marseillaise have a bright future ahead of them.
Concerning the symbols of the European Union, they seem to appeal mainly to those who are still outside. Like the pro-European protesters in … Ukraine, who marched the streets of Kiev on Sunday in order to express their indignation at what the BBC called a ‘snub to the EU’, i.e. the government’s decision to give in to pressure from Moscow and pull out of the trade deal talks with the EU. It appears that the European flag carries meaning to those who aspire to some of the values it may be felt to embody, but cannot compete with the emotional monopoly of the nation-state when it comes to expressing feelings of belonging to a community of destiny.
Albrecht Sonntag, Centre for European Integration, ESSCA School of Management.