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23 January, 2013

Arnault, Bardot and Depardieu

If jus soli and jus sanguinis are in the past, what makes a nation what it is?

What is a nation? What is national identity? For a long time political philosophy answered this question based on two possible principles. To some people, a nation is a tradition of the German type, based on historical and cultural unity and blood relations. To others, it is about political unity, citizenship determined by the place of birth and based on a “daily plebiscite”, as Ernest Renan wrote with regard to France in the late 19th century.

However, will we always remain within the framework outlined by these two definitions? Three unique cases in France offer a rather surrealist answer.

The first case involves Bernard Arnault, one of the richest men on earth (ranked fourth by Forbes in 2012. – Ed.) and owner of the French brands Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy and Christian Dior. In July 2012, he applied for Belgian citizenship for fiscal reasons (in light of the Jean-Marc Ayrault socialist government’s intention to raise the income tax to 75 per cent on personal incomes over €1m. – Ed.). Belgian taxes are lower. Arnault’s initial request was granted, which is not at all standard practice in Belgium.

The second case is that of Gérard Depardieu who moved to Belgium in December 2012 also to avoid the tough French fiscal policy. His story is very rocambolesque” the French prime minister called his exile “minable” (pathetic, pitiful), and the enraged actor made some loud statements after which he accepted an invitation from his friend Vladimir Putin and chose Russian citizenship, praising Russia’s democratic virtues to the skies and claiming that he came to love Russia as he listened to Radio Moscow in his childhood years, in the family of his communist father.

The third case is absolutely mind-boggling. Brigitte Bardot, the star of the 1960s, declared that if two elephants in Léon’s zoo, which have tuberculosis and are highly contagious, are subjected to euthanasia, as was publicly announced, she would also move to Russia.

These cases open a brand-new and shocking approach to national identity, which former President Nicolas Sarkozy decided to seriously call into question back in 2009. Being French, that is, having the rights and duties of a French citizen, may be reconsidered due to a strict fiscal policy (Arnault and Depardieu) or in the name of animal protection in the form of blackmail (Bardot). Citizenship and national identity then appear to be personal attributes which a person can renounce under new circumstances in favour of others.

This is something very different from jus sanguinis, because membership in a nation turns into a matter of personal choice, which is evidently not political, at least not explicitly, even if the above three figures belonged to the right camp, rather than the left. It is not a matter of jus soli, either, because it is of no importance where the person lives physically, geographically or territorially. What matters is the legislation under which he must pay less in taxes and who will support him in his specific struggle.

Nation-states then become involved in a competition, and if one of them offers less than another, one of its citizens may abandon it – not in a cosmopolitan way to become a citizen of the world, but to join another nation. Thus, the big discussion about national identity begins to make less and less sense, because neither universal values, nor democracy, nor citizenship or historical and cultural ties matter anymore. What matters, instead, is money, personal offences, personal whims and vanity.

Such perturbations are a disservice to the idea of nation and even more so to those who exploit economic factors, follow narcissistic ideas or resort to patent blackmail.

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