Flying the wrong flag can get you a lot of flak and usually from the wrong folk. Which is what French President Emmanuel Macron found out earlier this month when he had the flag of the European Union raised—blue with a circle of golden stars—in place of the French tricolor to mark France’s turn at the rotating EU presidency. Given the hysterical, mouth-foaming outrage of Macron’s conservative and rightwing rivals, it might as well have been the Union Jack of Boris Johnson’s Britain, France’s new-found favorite enemy.
Macron caved to the protests, and the EU flag, which was meant to make a symbolic appearance for some time, came down again after just one full day. Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant Rassemblement National, celebrated its removal as a “great patriotic victory.” A patriotic victory for the French, really? Not if you’d ask German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine who spent half his life in Paris. He wrote in 1836 that French patriotism “warms and expands the heart so that it includes the entire civilized world.” And since he spent the other half of his life in Germany, he also had something to say about patriotism across the Rhine: “A German’s patriotism means that his heart contracts and shrinks like leather in the cold, and a German then hates everything foreign, no longer wants to become a citizen of the world, no longer a European, but only a provincial German.” No longer a European? It sounds like Macron’s adversaries are unknowingly turning into old school Germans—or new school, if you include the populist far right Alternative für Deutschland, which currently holds a sizable chunk of seats in the German parliament. Their Bundestag members are known to be the only ones to wear lapel pins with an oversized German flag. The bigger the flag, the browner the shirt, I guess.
What’s with the flag fetishism these days? You wouldn’t have known that West Germany had a flag in the 1970s because it was hardly ever used—not even during soccer games. Fast forward to 2021 and you have Germany’s head coach assure the nation that even in retirement his heart will continue “to beat in black, red and gold.” This is not just cringeworthy fatherlandish kitsch (at least in my mind) but also utter biological nonsense and even more bizarre than bleeding in red, white and blue, as patriots on this side of the Atlantic like to do.
Macron’s ill-fated attempt to publicly emphasize the supranational and European flavor of French patriotism happened at the Arc de Triomphe. This monument in the center of Paris commemorates those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Beneath the arch lies the tomb of an unknown French soldier from World War I. Therefore, members of Les Républicains, the GOP’s doppelganger in France, have called flying the EU flag an erasure of French identity and an affront to France’s heritage and veterans.
I bet those veterans would be happy to hear that their sacrifice ultimately contributed to a peaceful and united Europe. And I don’t think they would mind receiving a blue and golden thank-you note from the EU.
Henning Schroeder is a professor at the University of Minnesota and currently teaches in the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch. His email address is email@example.com and his Twitter handle is @HenningSchroed1.