Is Ethnicity a fiction?

By Colman Cassidy


In this paper, I turn the question around to focus, primarily, on whether ethnicity is a fiction with particular reference to Brittany.  The outcome of that debate is, prima facie, a major determinant of whether there is a ‘people’.
The essay is in three parts.  The first gives the background to the present state of sub-nationalism in Brittany in the light of developments since World War II, with particular reference to the halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s, when the Breton movement, militant and non-militant, rose from the ashes of the pogroms heralded by the Liberation of France.
The second part explores the arguments for and against ethnicity, with reference to the work of Balibar and Fishman in particular – and argues, inter alia, that ethnicity as a pivotal phenomenon, has been written out of history by both developmentalism and Marxism.  Before deciding whether there is such a thing as a ‘people’ (on the basis of the evidence in Part 2), I have reviewed in Part 3 an unpublished study carried out by the University of Western Brittany for the (André Malraux-originated) Palais des Arts et de la Culture, PAC, ostensibly into how the people of Brest see themselves in terms of Europe.  The survey, carried out in 1977, a few years before the onset of neo-liberalism, is a semiotic treasure because of the crucial – and almost inadvertent – light it throws on how the inhabitants of this important naval/cultural centre see themselves, as Bretons.  I conclude on a note of hope – notwithstanding one major caveat – on the basis that Brittany can manage to arrest the decline in the cultural and political/economic fortunes of its people – with its multiplicity of signifiers as a distinctive minority culture (history, music, dance, language etc.).


09635 René Pleven died on 14 January, 1993, aged 92.  Twice prime minister of the Fourth Republic (1950-52), he was, in turn, distinguished parliamentarian, professional soldier, republican, militant Catholic, Gaullist “of the great years” and first and last, a Breton.  Pleven’s political career began in 1940, when he joined de Gaulle’s Free French, in London.  He won the patronising admiration of his British colleagues at the time, who considered him to be “the most sensible of the Free French leaders” – although one of them warned against his quick temper which he believed to be “a consequence of the amount of calvados that his Breton ancestors had drunk”, as reported in The Guardian (16 January 1993).  This may be seen as a classic example of symbolic (racial) violence, that is, the negative portrayal of another sub-group or group for the purposes of defining the self-group in a positive way.
It was no new experience for a scion of Brittany – where repression and violence, real and symbolic, including cultural genocide in various forms were freely used for more than 450 years to stamp out the Breton culture and language, in the interests of a unified French nation state.  After the war, Pleven, the Deputy for Dinan, was a founder member of Comite d’Etudes et de Liaison des Interets Bretons, CELIB, a pressure group for regional expansion, that achieved mixed success.  CELIB’s finest hour, perhaps was during its successful campaign to persuade the government to abandon its attempt to enforce new SNCF (railway) rates that would militate directly against agriculture and industrial activity.  Less successful and perhaps the ultimate cause of its demise, was its attempts to keep open the Forges d’Hennebont, the centre of the Breton steel industry, which finally was closed down in 1966. (O’Callaghan, pp.80-81)  In 1961, Pleven was to write in his book, L’Avenir de laBretagne (1961): “France is heading towards unsuspected trouble if it refuses Brittany the possibility of satisfactory growth and of playing a proper role in the general development of France.” ( Stephens, pp.401-402 ).  These words were prophetic, judging by the rash of industrial strikes and civil disturbances – starting with the ” artichoke war” that year – over the high prices being charged in Paris for artichokes produced in Brittany at minimal rates.  The government’s failure to implement CELIB’s demand for a loi d’orientation was also a running sore and gave rise to widespread demonstrations, occupation of the Morlaix prefecture and sabotaged telephone lines, as well as the blockades by tractors of roads and railways.
The probleme breton actuel, “as it is most objectively stated” by Le Guen (O’Callaghan, p.77) may be summed up by both the difficulty and necessity to promote the economic life of the region.  Breton nationalists were particularly aggrieved when the prosperous department of Loire-Atlantique – traditionally part of Brittany – was hived off from its administrative framework in 1961, accentuating the relative poverty of the remaining four departments, B4.  The most pressing problem was the decrease in agricultural employment in the B4 region, due to ever-increasing modernisation programmes.  Between 1954 and 1962, emigration accounted for more than 100,000 people under the age of 35 – against an influx of 5,000, above the age of retirement.  By 1975, it was estimated that some 200,000 new jobs would have to be created to bring Brittany down to the same levels of unemployment prevailing in the other French regions.  The agricultural problem was particularly acute because of half-hearted attempts to modernise the industry.   The difficulties could have been overcome if efforts had been concentrated in one or two specific areas. In any event, policy preferences favoured urban-based industry rather than rural-based agriculture.  Breton farms were not developed along market lines until the 1950s.  The switch to cash crops made them highly dependent on markets outside their control leading ultimately to the disintegration of the rural economy.
Unemployment and emigration statistics, in the event, would have been much worse but for Rennes, the region’s capital, where an exceptionally vigorous and progressive anti-Gaullist mayor, Henri Freville, staged a major coup in persuading Citroen that his city was just the location for the large new car factory they were unable to build near Paris: “Emigrés kept arriving from the desolate, over-populated hinterland, and this being mother Brittany, they were less keen than in many parts of France to make straight for Paris.  It was essential to find new work for them in Rennes.” (Ardagh, pp.196-197)
A noteworthy initiative, dubbed by Ardagh “the Jesuit grocer’s crusade”, was undertaken by Edouard Leclerc, a Breton-born former clerical student who started the craze in France for hypermarkets.  Leclerc was determined to upset the price control rings exercised by “gombeen men” in his native Brittany who had made fortunes on the black market during the war and sought to continue their policy of high prices to the detriment of the low-paid and unemployed. (Ardagh, pp.154-162 )   The Gaullist government’s response to the mounting unrest was to designate Brittany “an electronics and atomic vocation”.  A space-communication station was built near Lannion and the CSF (electronics) company opened a big plant at Brest. This was not sufficient to stem the growing economic imbalance between Brittany and the richer French regions, however.
A growing sense of frustration against centrist policies came to a head in 1968 with an outbreak of violent Breton nationalism, spearheaded by the Front de Liberation de la Bretagne, FLB.  The FLB staged bomb attacks in a number of cities that led to the arrest of some 50 of its members including a number of priests and members of other “respectable” social groups. In the face of mounting discontent the government in Paris promised new motorways, automatic telephone links with the French capital, the transfer of more electronics industries, a new tanker port for Brest, whatever.  Some of these relief measures were put in train, but in general Bretons remained sceptical that their region would get its fair share of the national development budget.
In 1972, milk tankers were overturned in Finistere in the “Milk War” by the Committee of Young Farmers – in protest over low prices.  Bitterness among Breton workers also reached break point among the Joint Francais electrical workers at St. Brieuc where an eight-week strike, that year (ethnically mobilised) won widespread support throughout Brittany.  The dispute was over low wages – with the Breton workers being paid more than 30% below the prevailing rates for comparable work in Paris. (Ardagh, p.200).
In October 1972, the trial of 11 members of the FLB by a special court, Cour de Suretede l’Etat, comprising two army officers and three civilian judges, provided the militant organisation with an ideal propaganda platform. (Mordrel, quoted in O’Callaghan, p.91).  The FLB manifesto called for a Brittany that was socialist but neither bureaucratic nor authoritarian and which, inspired by its Celtic heritage, would give Bretons of all classes the opportunity to live a full life.  Three of the accused were acquitted and all were released immediately after the trial.
It is necessary, at this stage to put the impact of the FLB and the plethora of other Breton nationalist organisations – of varying political colours and creeds – in perspective.  CELIB’s role had been largely taken over by the Mouvement pour l’Organisation de la Bretagne, MOB, which, inter alia, urged the training of Breton language teachers and the introduction to the school curriculum of courses in Breton history.
MOB had as its slogan, “Neither Red nor White” – the same as that of the old Parti National Breton, whose leaders had “condemned the cause of Breton nationalism to decades of the most bitter opposition” (Stephens, p.379 ) because of their collaboration with the Germans in World War II.  Thus was Breton politics cast into the “desert” for 10 years, Lebesque posits ( p.165) with the virtual extinction of any open activity by the Breton movement.  Eventually, MOB splintered because of a series of quarrels and breakaway movements.  From its ashes rose the Union Democratique Bretonne, UDB, “the only Breton party which has made a mark on the political scene” in recent times, according to Stephens.  Nonetheless, it failed to have much success with the Breton electorate: “It is generally agreed that no more than 5% of Brittany’s population are active in the autonomist or nationalist cause; out of some 280 mayors of communes in Finistere, about eleven are committed nationalists while many of the others would welcome a greater degree of autonomy.”  At the 1971 municipal election in Brest, the UDB won only 2,618 votes (4.8%), although its members had been elected on United Left Wing tickets at Auray where its candidates had polled 12% of the votes in the previous year.
Since then, there has been little evidence that Brittany does not continue to be in the grip of Gaullist and other right-wing parties.  At the Brest election of 1971, the moderate right-wing won 24,506 votes (45%), the Gaullists 12,767 (23.5%), the French Communist Party 8,059 (15%) and the French Socialist Party 6,198 (11.4%).” (Stephens, pp.386-387)  Neither did the emergence of the new nationalist movements do much, in real terms for Breton – the last Celtic language on the continent of Europe, a ‘sister’ to Welsh and ‘cousin’ to Irish. (Contacts Bulletin, 1991)  To put this in perspective: the Welsh language is currently taught in schools and has its own television and radio channels – and while formerly proscribed, nowadays enjoys a “positive tolerance” from the British government.  By contrast, the Paris authorities’ hostility to Breton, if no longer overt, is nonetheless still both systematic and official – perpetuating an age-long tradition of linguistic repression.   For this reason, it is perhaps a miracle that the Breton language still continues to exist, so concentrated have been the efforts to eliminate it over the last two centuries.


Quantitative and empirical inquiry on this topic is still rare and must await further theoretical clarification before it can proceed with confidence. (Fishman in Jessel: Foreword)
Language, it could be argued, has replaced religion as the symbol of ethnicity.  In Brittany however, the marked decline in the Breton language since the war – despite the ‘la loi Deixonne’ gesture by the government in 1951, that allowed it to be taught in schools – has meant that this role has largely been filled by folk culture, music in particular. Kendalc’h, established in 1964, is the major cultural movement in Brittany.  It has four main aims:
1) To maintain the living folk tradition.   2) To bring various forces together to promote popular education.    3) To raise awareness among the young on how to cope with future problems, such as unemployment.   4) To provide a new means for the modern Breton to express his/her identity (through the medium of French).

Kendalc’h has more or less given up on the language and instead has focused on music. How people such as musician Alan Stivell feel about (or rationalise) their culture – in a phenomenological sense – is a gauge of their position in terms of its “patrimonic” or “paternity” elements, as explored by Fishman.
Stivells maintains he was never interested in Breton culture before May 1968 for the very good reason that he was ignorant of it.  He had lived under a “wall of prejudice”. (‘Peuple breton’ , May 1973, cited in Le Dantec, p.267)  Paternity and patrimony are not primarily in opposition; they are a continuum with subjective phenomenology binding them together – in an ethnomethodological sense.  These elements of opposite features comprise the tension of ethnicity, according to Fishman. Table 1 illustrates:

IMG_20150316_104552Take paternity: an example would be the “genius” of a nation, something that is regarded as typical of a particular people.  Or if is overstated – as in the case of the PNB leaders’ decision to collaborate with fascism – it tends to find its identity in race or caste.
Objectively, it may be defined in terms of specific language, customs, dress, tradition and cultural policies (music etc.).  Ross’s view of the objectivist approach suggests that ethnic boundaries can be drawn through the identification of discrete cultural institutions and processes, chief among them a distinctive language, “..that may serve as a daily language in use, or, alternatively serve only as a language of ritual.” (Ross, p.3)  With regard to music, he argues that ethnic identity differs from communal identity “in that it is explicit and not taken for granted”.  It differs from a minority identity in that it is defined by the group rather than for it.  As with Breton music and dance, “the group myths and cultural values, including language, that categorise the communal state of collective development, may be substantially revised, altered and reinterpreted so as to fit changed conditions”.  In this respect, the Breton experience vindicates Ross’s assertion that ethnic identity (for example, in Stivell) is a distinctly modern phenomenon rather than a mere reiteration of primitive or traditional images: “Ethnicity does not disappear in modern societies; it only emerges in modern societies. (Ross, p.8)
In paternity, one talks of what is defined. In patrimony, one enters the sphere of what belongs (heritage).  Patrimony is synonymous with how a group – or individual – defines itself as, for example, “in”, in contrast to “out”; for instance, the relationship between Bretons who write and/or speak their own language and the Francophonic Gallos.  However, if there is too much stress, say, on the notion of ethnicity as being “blood-related”, this could be dangerous.  Patrimony refers to something not in a state of being, but that is made to happen.  As one writer put it: “Culture is really talking – everyone adds to it.”  Indeed, there are whole areas of culture so all-embracing that they may reduce/replace all other cultures – as exemplified in Brittany by the relentless march of modern capitalism and the environmental fallout from “modernisation”. 
This is well-illustrated empirically within the social context of the PAC study. pp.16-18).  And what about pluralism?  This, I suggest, is a subliminal nuance that runs right through the PAC study – in terms of the mix of Breton-born Brestois and outsiders – who just happen to have the well-paid jobs in (state-run) telecommunications, the navy or the hydrographic service.  The very premise on which the survey is based (the Brestois view of “Europe”) may be seen, a priori, as an acceptance of plurality as “a good thing”.  It is only when one comes to examine the findings in detail that one sees the need to question such an hypothesis.  The discourse of pluralism hinges on power.  Thus, the role of Paris in putting motorways and electronic firms into Brittany may be seen, realistically, as little more than expediency – a means of calming political tension in the four economically dependent departments of the north-west (see the internal colonisation argument, below).
The bestowal of equality is less real than perceived.  What follows is an ethnomethodological reaction – as ethnicity mobilises on an ecological footing against nukes and environmental rupture (whether motorways or oil slicks) in support of quality of life and a politics of place.  As the ethnic group (the Bretons) come to realise that the region’s contribution to increased French GDP/national income, through a growing dependence on “foreign” capital, does not reflect the damage imposed on its environment/ecology, it surely follows that ethnicity has an integral value of its own – a prism through which we see the world. [cf. Sunday Press article for Irish perspective on mobilised ethnicity in relation to the “goldrush” on Croagh Patrick (]
This is to state the case for ethnicity as an overriding determinant, the mobiliser of a people in its own right – under the banner of Breton sub-nationalism – free of class-based and other theoretical constraints.
Let us now examine ethnicity against the background of the Forges d’Hennebont and the mobilisation of the (Breton) ethnic group political/cultural initiatives in the light of four theories: developmentalism, Marxism, internal colonialism and ethnic competition. 

The Four Theories 

“I had recognised the need to situate the analysis of class struggles and their reciprocal effects on the developments of capitalism within the context of social formations and not simply on the mode of production considered as an ideal mean or an invariant system..,a determining role in the configuration of relations of production had to be attributed to all the historical aspects of the class struggle.” (Balibar, p.2)  For Balibar and the developmental theorists, ethnicity, in whatever form – nationalist or sub-nationalist (Breton) – is fictive, for example “the French nation”.  He argues that the French are inventing a nation to draw people into a class-ridden society; nationality was created where previously it had not existed: the bourgeoisie invented the concept of nationalism to replace the “feudal system” in which the chanon (clergy/landowners) were important (the French Revolution).   As for ethnic sub-nationalism – such as that expressed in the Breton movement, that is merely the predilection of a backward-looking culture.
“No national, that is, no national state, has an ethnic basis,” he argues, “which means that nationalism cannot be defined as an ethnocentrism except precisely in the sense of the product of a fictive ethnicity.” (Balibar, p.49)  To reason any other way, he asserts, would be to forget that ‘peoples’ do not exist nationally any more than races do, either by virtue of their ancestry, community of culture or pre-existing interests.
This is a reasonable premise in the context of French stateness and territoriality, two of the three elements of nationality, which are large – very large – relative to Brittany.  The third element, ethnicity, however, is relatively small in terms of the French nation state – but large in terms of Breton sub-nationalism.  Unlike Wales, Brittany has no autonomous structures and therefore has nothing to offer on the stateness front.  In effect, this element has been subsumed by territoriality, which itself, even, is fairly tenuous in the Breton sense, as understood by Lebesque: “The state has a naming policy; language is power.”  Thus Brittany, viewed from the Ile de France at once became en provence; today it’s called, simply, “the West”. Bretons, at a stroke of the mandarin’s pen, while ostensibly enjoying a higher degree of self-determination under the new regional structures, are thus linked into an area that includes Normandy and the Loire – engulfed by a policy of technocratic regionalism as processed through the Fifth Republic. 

In what could equally posit as a useful apologia of western Marxism, Balibar challenges: “I have maintained (re)constitution on new bases (and in new words, perhaps) of a class ideology capable of counteracting today’s (and tomorrow’s) galloping nationalism; it has as a pre-condition – which already determines its content – an attractive anti-racism.” (Balibar, p.13)  One can readily appreciate the irony here in terms of Breton sub-nationalism.
For Balibar – and Marxism – the state comes first and creates the nation. In former times this was done by armies; more recently, it’s cultural.  People speak the same language, follow the same curricula, watch the same TV programmes and partake in the same consumer markets.  It’s the new way of creating citizen loyalty to the invented nation.
Unlike the developmentalists, Marxism would occasionally see the nation as progressive, if for instance, it is harnessed to the overthrow of a foreign imperialist, for example, for the Bantus against the white African imperialist.
In developed society, however, Marxism views the concept of the nation in a negative light – because it is seen to be a competing ideology that can entrap the working class.  It argues on a rhetorical basis against external enemies (the Germans, in World War II) and internal enemies (Breton sub-nationalism: hence its implacable opposition to the PNB) – bringing France down, from within; in this sense, the French themselves, would say that they were “infiltrated”.  In general, Marxists are wary of the hold that nationalists can have on the ethnic group because it militates against internationalism.  Thus, campaigns such as the one at the Joint Francais company, mobilised on ethnic lines, are viewed as the hi-jacking of the working class by the forces of reaction.  They refuse to entertain the notion of a cultural division of labour – not wanting to believe that “workers” are involved.  In Brittany, this was indeed the case, one might suggest, since the case for ethnic sub-nationalism was largely articulated by the clergy/intellectuals and landowners up to the 1950s.  In the campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s class differences were no longer dominant in deference to the cultural division of labour mobilised under the banner of ethnicity.  The Marxists greatly underestimated the appeal of ethnic solidarity – and in the Breton context, the vital importance of agriculture as a rallying point for workers: so the peasants were occluded because of the cultural value of rural society per se, which is viewed by the intellectual ferment as backward, anti-progressive and reactionary. 
For developmentalism (dubbed by Hechter the “diffusion” model), what becomes significant in capitalist society is not ethnic origin but the function or structural criteria, for example, working class, owning class, middle or technocratic class.  In Brittany in the 1960s and 1970s, however, these criteria were restored (the artichoke and milk campaigns, the canning industry, Joint Francais, Forges d’Hennebont etc.) and it became highly significant to belong to an ethnic sub-nationalist culture.  This was to take the developmentalists completely by surprise – as early as the 1930s, writers were treating ethnic sub-nationalism as an anachronism.  Ethnicity-based conflict became highly visible from that time in western Europe – as today, in central and eastern Europe. Rumours of ethnicity’s demise have indeed been greatly exaggerated over the past 200 years: it first appeared to have been submerged during the French Enlightenment, with the development of liberal capitalism.  A series of social phenomena beginning with the Enlightenment, transmitted by the French Revolution and thenceforth diverted by Marxist teaching along utopian universalistic lines, led to the suppression of ethnic forces – as in Brittany: “…it was not surprising, if a trifle opportunistic, that, impaled on the horns of a socio-historical dilemma, nationalism alone was equated with social evils and thrown as a sop to the class war”. ( Jessel, p.15 )  Ethnicity went underground, again when the gender debate came to the fore in the late 1960s – social theorists tending to view it in a functionalist light, as “reactive”.  They never stopped to inquire, “What does it change?”  The emergence of Friedmanite monetarism and neo-liberalism in the 1980s saw it disappear again and now (post-Maastricht) there is every indication of yet another revival, given the EC’s commitment to minority cultures within its borders and of course, the situation in Eastern Europe.
Breton nationalists such as Lebesque, would not disagree too much with the approach of either the developmentalists or Marxists towards French nationalism (the nation state), but when it comes to Brittany, would draw very different conclusions, on ethnomethodological grounds – akin to the position held by Fishman.
Ethnomethodology is a form of sociological analysis which focuses on the everyday and commonplace practices of people and concentrates on how they go about creating a sense of reality and normality for themselves. (Watson, p.45)  It takes “interactionist insights” nearer to their logical conclusion – denying any objective reality to social phenomena.  This is well-illustrated in the case of Brest where a survey was carried out in the late 1970s, ostensibly into the town’s attitude to being part of “the new Europe”.  One wonders whether this could have been the Paris Establishment’s way of covertly taking the region’s sub-nationalist ‘temperature’ in this pivotally important French naval town.
The study, at any rate, is an important fulcrum for the arguments presented in this paper: ethnomethodological science would say that French law is not simply complied with by the Brestois because the nation state (Paris) requires it.  Rather, people more or less comply because they recognise a set of expectations to which they should conform, with a greater or lesser degree of willingness – as far as possible suiting their own purposes or projects.
Lebesque’s position would find an echo in the work of Jessel (pp.11-12) who asserts that there is an “internationalist/universalist” antipathy towards the notion of an ethnic basis to society.  Marxist class ideology, he argues, has proved incapable of recognising in the national question, “…the capitalist phase of a hoary ethnic antiquity.  The persistence for more than a century of this aversion and its resultant offensive had struck me as a flagrant example of ideological bias that urgently required clarification.”(Jessel,p.11)  In the recent rash of studies on ethnic phenomena in the various disciplines, theoretical pursuit of the flow of ethnic energy had been crucially impeded – and the concept of an ethnic process swept out of consciousness: “It was like a scholarly arrest.” (Jessel, p.12)  The Marxists had rationalised that nationalism would disappear with capitalism and according to Lenin, would be replaced by a new world society – proletarian internationalism. Nationalism was seen as the process of “strangling ourselves in our tribal separateness”. (Jessel, p.14)  Thus, Marx and his followers, Jessel argues, transmuted “Marx’s most brilliant achievement”, the theory of class struggle, into an “obscurantist blindspot”, where ethnicity is concerned. In the context of Brittany, it can thus be argued, the French nation state and Marxism had in common the fact that they saw ethnic nationalism as the most devastating evil to which man was addicted and should therefore be eradicated forthwith.
Ironically, the attempt to suppress the Breton ethnic national idea, it may be argued, served only to highlight the links between speech, community and specific language – that lay deep beneath the capitalist superstructure: this is because French ethnic identity is relatively weak – ethnicity meaning signs of belonging to a larger community – despite the nationalistic chauvinism everywhere in evidence.   Fishman sees ethnicity as an unconscious primordial factor – a construct that pertains to an all-encompassing web: “This web comes apart and becomes segmentised, bit by bit, during successive periods of socio-cultural-change.  Its segments become separately transformed, symbolically elaborated and integrated via organisations ideologies and political institutions.  Nationalism – including language loyalty – is made of the stuff of primordial ethnicity.” (Fishman, pp.182-183)  It’s a “transformed ethnicity”, he asserts, with all of the accoutrements for functioning at a larger scale of political, social and intellectual activity.
The Fishman conception of ethnicity is a notable advance, I would argue – at once vindicating the Lebesque attribution of the importance of ethnicity, despite the Breton writer’s jeremiads on the future of Breton as a live language.  It stands in stark contrast to the Marxist conceptualisation of (ethnic) nationalism: anything that related to ethnicity was brushed aside as so much myth and trivia. (Jessel, p.239)  Fishman, taking his cue from K.R. Mingogue’s Nationalism (1967) which suggests that the peasantry is the source of national creativity asserts: “It is the past, in all its authenticity and glory that constitutes the main storehouse from which nationalism derives its dynamism for changing the present and creating the future.” (Fishman, p.8)  In line with internal colonisation theory, writers such as Hechter argue that Brittany has developed in a “dependent mode” (like a colony within France).  The peripheries, according to Hechter are developed under the external (centralised) control of the dominant metropolitan ethnic group, the Parisian Ile de France basin.  Again, this throws up the notion of a cultural or ethnic division of labour – fitting onto the “intellectual” and “manual” divisions of labour.   The intellectual work is done by the people from outside – as the Brest study illustrates – while the lowest-paid jobs go to the displaced rural population.  This context is important, too, for women workers, many of who enter the industrial economy as low-paid and underskilled employees reporting to “ethnically different” bosses.  Hechter talks of an ethno-class and suggests that a peripheralised group develops solidarity as a reaction to its oppression or expulsion – using ethnicity to mobilise itself.  This theory, too, fails to attribute its proper – and precise – role to ethnic mobility.  It concedes that culture has value in mobilising against economic inequality, but argues that it does not, in theory, have value in itself.  It therefore accounts for the phenomenon of ethnic sub-nationalism on the grounds of “cleavage”: the French staatvolk are more likely to be middle-class and the Bretons, working class.  Rather than blame the bourgeoisie, however, Hechter blames the state, which embodies inequality between the different regions.  This is well-encapsulated within the Forges d’Honnebont conflict: the Breton steel firm produced cans for the agricultural industry.  It ran into cash-flow difficulties and needed a capital injection.  Many of the employees were casual workers whose main mode of subsistence was agriculture.  Turned down by Paris for aid (the larger canning companies, it emerged, had powerful friends in government – is this not an example of ethnic competition?), the company applied for structural fund aid from Brussels, which was sanctioned.  The EC money had to be administered by Paris, however, and the government blocked the vital capital injection to the Breton company, so that it became insolvent and was closed down.  The ensuing conflict united the entire region – Brittany against Paris. Marxists would argue that the French government gave this conflict an ethnic dimension, while seeing it strictly in terms of working class versus powerful capitalist interests.
Ethnicity as a mobilising force in Forges d’Honnebont is palpable, however, I would suggest. The issue is similar in scope to the drowning of the Welsh valleys to supply water to England or the cutting down of Irish oak trees in the past, to build ships for the British navy.  The theory argues that internal colonisation creates a situation similar to that in the colonies of the Third World – where the staatvolk abrogate for themselves raw materials and labour for their own purposes.  Hechter posits that worker ethnicity heats up resistance to assimilation: they simply react on the grounds of class and economic repression.
The theory sees cultural or ethnic solidary as useful, but with a well-defined ‘function’. In relation to Brittany, it suffers from the same shortcomings as the other two theories, I believe, in seeking to downplay the role of ethnicity which at intervals has been of paramount importance in mobilising opposition to Paris within the region.

The ethnic competition theory – emerging from the black separatist movement in the southern USA states in the 1980s – unlike the others, does not attempt to explain ethnic sub-nationalism.  Briefly, it argues that ethnic groups which in former times were separated in their respective psycho-social niches, have achieved better communications under modern conditions.  This means that they now have access to other groups and use their ethnicity as a trump card within the labour market. As with developmentalism, the theory posits that ethnicity and occupation become distinct under modernisation – and ethnic group solidarity and can be used for ‘upwardly mobile’ purposes in the functional country.  Experience of Breton émigrés in the Paris labour market tends to disprove this.  Competing with other members of the working class, in the French capital, in the main, they may indeed be at a decided disadvantage on the ground of the symbolic ethnic violence, on a par with immigrants from the Third World, say, or from poor European countries such as Portugal. 
Ethnic competition also suggests that modernisation activates non-ethnic boundaries: the more modernised a region is, the more it should enjoy ethnic-based policies – the exact opposite of developmentalism.   As a theory, it suffers from a number of chronic defects.  First, it does not take into account the decline of ethnic sub-nationalism in the 1980s.  Secondly, in the light of light of Hechter’s assertion that the bosses are brought in from the outside (for example, the top state jobs in Brest), the theory does not work well in the peripheries.  Thirdly, ethnic groups are not equal when it comes to the jobs market, for example Bretons versus Parisians.   Finally, it is entirely mercenary – denominating ethnic solidarity as a saleable commodity, in value terms.

Part 3 – BREST

To feel that one is part of an autochthonous group is a momentous emotion for many persons and is probably kin to, if not prototypical of. the ego itself.  It resembles a type of spontaneous, unembellished sense of unity with which both ethnic group and human society as a whole might seek to identify as they instinctively feel the approach of a critical conjuncture. (Jessel, p.245)   
André_Malraux,_Pic,_22An EC-sponsored survey commissioned by the Palais des Art et de la Culture, PAC, (the early 1960s brainchild of André Malraux, de Gaulle’s Minister for Culture and an emotional apologist of Gaullist nationalism) was carried out in 1978 – into how the people of Brest viewed the different European cultures.  This study, undertaken by the University of Western Brittany, ostensibly to determine the town’s predisposition to being part of a greater Europe, ironically, is much more valuable, I suggest, for the unprecedented empirical insight it provides into the inhabitants’ attitude to Breton language, culture and politics.   Given the PAC’s raison d’être, in Malraux’s words, to enable France “to become again the world’s foremost cultural nation” (Ardagh, p.231), it seems fair to conclude that Brest was chosen, almost with a totally blind eye to its ethnic dimension: because of its 200,000 inhabitants, it was considered representative of the medium-sized European town; and as a military port, “one of the two main naval bases of the French nation-state, (it) also shelters one of the metropoles of Breton regionalism”. (PAC, p.125)   What clearly emerged from interviews with about 1,000 Brestois, was that most were “one way or another marked by Breton culture”, regardless of whether they accepted it.  Many regarded their regional culture – the fact of being Breton – as a means of “anchoring themselves” in a world that is in constant motion – a characteristic reaction against a modern technological world that is becoming more and more uniform.  “To be Breton or see oneself as Breton does not mean turning inwards upon oneself, towards a backward-looking culture,” said the editor of the study’s summary, Patrick Galliou, a lecturer at the University of Brest.   
Galliou, incidentally, is described as Breton – “born of four Breton-speaking peasant grandparents, but himself ignorant of his parents’ mother tongue like so many men and women of his generation (aged 45-50). ” Yet he was “reprimanded” at the college of Basse-Terre (Guadeloupe) for speaking “Antillese Creole” and having learned “Prouvencau veci la coupo” in Aix-en-Provence for his certificate of studies: “He is a Frenchman, a French citizen, a French civil servant, a historian and archaeologist who has travelled inside and outside Europe and has lived in Brest for 20 years.” (p.126)
The questionnaire on which the results are based is in three sections.  The first – the one particularly relevant for the purposes of this paper – focuses mainly on Breton language and culture.  In a study commissioned by an organisation that epitomises the worldview of the staatvolk, this is justified on the ground “that it would have been wrong to ignore the autochthonous cultural substratum to blot out the undistortable ‘sound box’ not only of the traditional culture of this country itself but also of any culture differing from the ancient Celtic foundation”.  At the very least, the study is a probe – intentional or not – into the very ethnicity of the Brestois, I would argue, with all that this entails for gauging its inherent “patrimony” and “paternity” elements.  Significantly, too, Galliou says, it would have been wrong to start a study on a collective discussion on the cultural identity of a living community and on the diachronic dimension which links to the sphere of European civilisation “without taking account of the deep roots of this people which still today form an important part of its personality”.
The survey opens with a six questions relating to the ancient Celtic sphere.  The final three questions are aimed at enabling the people reached by the questionnaire “to place themselves better in relation to their own European origins, to those Breton roots about which we have just explained to what extent they are present in and continuously authenticated by the people of this region of France”.  I will confine my comments to just a few of the study’s findings: at the time of the survey the average Brestois was aged 33 and “of Breton origins”, as represented by 68% of the town’s population: some of the inhabitants believe a type of “cultural syncretism” has taken place in Brest between the traditional rural and urban cultures – the latter “with its bourgeois, national, even Parisian roots, marked by the industrial age”. (PAC, p.128)  Brest was primarily responsible for the Breton cultural revival in the 1970s, according to its citizens.  The rare radio and television broadcasts in Breton also came from there. 
Criticisms of the navy are explained by the fact that it is seen to be a national (French) institution – in terms of its officer corps.  Significantly, in answer to Question 19, “Do you feel Breton, French or European?” nearly all the groups responded in the order, “1) French; 2) Breton; 3) European” except for artists, policemen and some civil servants.  Those most in favour of the promotion of the Breton culture – or at least its maintenance and revaluation – were adults aged between 35 and 60, especially the clergy, teachers and Catholic circles: “They even approved of the use of Breton in everyday life,” the study notes. “This attitide is comprehensible. Adults are sadly aware of the discomforts (sic) of their situation, especially those who have enjoyed rapid promotion in their career thanks to the privilege of education.  They are moving up the social ladder and no longer really belong to the world of their origins without having been entirely adopted by the new world they have entered.” (PAC, p.129)  There is no room for regional languages in a France destined to mark Europe with its seal. (Georges Pompidou, French President, 1972 – quoted in Stephens, p.391)


I believe that this paper has proven the case for ethnicity as a phenomenon rooted in antiquity.  In the words of Michel Quesnel, president of the University of Western Brittany: “Culture is not a harlequin costume made up of the most beautiful bits and pieces of material collected here and there, nor is it – eclecticism aside – a hired costume.” (PAC,p.7)  It is first and foremost “the childhood home”, he posits, whose virtue lies less in convincing the intelligence than in giving the whole man or woman, taken in the totality of his or her needs, a climate within which they can fulfil themselves. 
The EC has already indicated – through various instruments it has put in train over the past few years – a special sensitivity towards minority cultures within its borders; and in particular, in respect of France’s insistence on its right to exercise its hegemonic ‘privileges’ in respect of regions within its nation state.  That said, there is every likelihood that in time, Brittany could begin to bypass Paris and gain access to the structural funds it so vitally needs for so many worthwhile regional projects.  Ironically, the French language is itself under attack – from English – particularly in areas such as science and technology, telecommunications etc. – with more and more French academics forced to publish in English, to maintain their international reputations. 
Nowadays, Breton nationalists such as Lebesque, appear to be much less worried about the fate of the language than over Brittany’s economic pulse rate.  There is a caustic note in his reference to the handful of people who insist on the importance of the language as a national signifier.  The country is dying, he says, and still they insist on speaking Breton, at its tomb.  There is of course no question of Brittany gaining its independence from France; very few would actually want it.  I would suggest, however, that while their ethnicity remains intact and they are undoubtedly a “people”, the language issue – despite all the measures, real and tentative, taken to restore it – is the true ‘Achilles heel’ in their aspirations to maintain a distinctive identity as mainland Europe’s Celtic fringe.   Ross puts the case well: “If ethnic groups are, in reality, societal fossils destined for little more than the dusty shelves of ethnographers, then it follows that the languages that they speak are similarly antique and disposable.  Furthermore, if language lies at or close to the heart of ethnic distinctiveness, the transition of a group from what is viewed as a sub-national anomaly to an integrated part of a vital, modern, integrated nation involves a linguistic transformation, either voluntary or induced.” (Ross, p.2). 

 R E F E R E N C E S

Ardagh, John, The New France: A Society in Transition 1945-73. London: Pelican, 1973.
Balibar, E. and Wallerstein, I., Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. London/NY: 1991.
“Brittany: stifling the language”, European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages’ Contact-Bulletin, Vol.8(1), 1991.
Fishman, Joshua A., Language and Nationalism. Rowley, Mass: Newbury House, 1972.
Jessel, Levic, The Ethnic Process: An Evolutionary Concept of Languages and Peoples. The Hague/Paris/New York: Mouton, 1978.
Lebesque, Morvan, Comment peut-on etre breton?  Paris, 1970.
Le Dantec, Jean-Pierre, Bretagne: Renaissance d’un People, Paris, 1974.
Neville, Grace, “Minority languages in contemporary France”, Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development, Vol. 8(1/2), 1987.
O’Callaghan, M.J.C., Separatism in Brittany, pp.77-155.
Ross, J.A., “Language and the mobilization of ethnic identity” in Giles, H. & Saint-Jacques (eds.), Language & Ethnic Relations. Oxford/NY: Pergamon Press, 1979, pp. 1-13.
Slone, G. Ted, “Language revival in France: the regional idioms”, Language Problems & Language Planning, Vol.13, 1989, pp. 224-242.
Reece, Jack E., The Bretons against France, Chapel Hill, 1977.
Stephens, Meic, Linguistic Minorities in Western Europe. LLandysul: Gomer Press, 1978, pp.362-402.
University of Western Brittany, Brest in Europe: How the people of Brest see their relations with the various European cultures. Palais des Arts et de la Culture, PAC, 1977.
Watson, Tony, Sociology, Work & Industry, London/NY: Routledge, 1980.

Colman Cassidy ©

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