Culture / French / International Relations / Nation Identity / Travel

An Update on Life in the Epicentre of Europe. Vive l’Alsace!

My time in Alsace has not been quite how I imagined life in France to be. Perhaps it’s because Strasbourg isn’t totally French. With German architecture all around and dishes such as « Sauerkraut » and « Flammenkuchen » on the menu, the town of Strasbourg (also a germanic name) seems at the blink of an eye, more german than french. The history of Alsace, as well as it’s unique culture and language, has created a region in which the majority of its inhabitants have the tendancy to identify more with Alsace than with the french nation. This has certainly affected Alsace’s interaction with France and at the same time, with the european community as a whole.

Alsace borders both Germany and Switzerland on its Eastern front and isn’t too far south from Luxembourg and Belgium. Strasbourg’s geographic position in Europe has also made its capital, Strasbourg, seat of the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. One can see already that Alsace has been exposed to a variety of different cultures, languages and people.

French influence in Alsace began at the end of the 1500s during the Wars of Religion and increased during the Thirty Years War when Alsatian cities, caught betweens warring Catholic and Protestant armies, turned to France for much-needed assistance.

Most of the region was attached to France in 1648, and by the time of the French Revolution, the Alsatian people felt more connected to France than to Germany.The “Marseillaise” was actually written in Strasbourg in 1792 by Rouget de l’Isle and was initially titled “The Battle Hymn for the Army of the Rhine”. Alsatians admired Napoleon Bonaparte greatly and were extremely loyal to him. The admiration was mutual. “Napoleon expressed a special affection for his Alsace regiments, attached as ever to their dialect: ‘Let them speak their jargon,’ he said indulgently, ‘for they fight like true French swordsmen’”. The Alsatians were clearly considered completely French at this time despite their different language and customs. This is understandable considering that, atthis time in history, language was not regarded as of much importance concerning nationality.

However, Germany still held out hope for a foothold on the western bank of the Southern Rhine, and in 1870, the Franco-Prussian war was launched. It was a humiliating defeat for France, who was forced to cede Alsace and the northern part of Lorraine to the Second Reich. During the time of German rule, citizens were forbidden to speak French and all books, signs and other references to France were destroyed. Then, as we all know, following Germany’s defeat in WWI, Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France, and the previous anti-French policies were reversed.

It’s not surprising that Alsace’s identity is a little confused after all that. But it is this mixture of Franco-German origins that makes Alsace so special. Alsace is a symbol of hope for future France-German (and indeed pan-european) cooperation, hence why is was chosen as the seat of the Council of Europe and for the European Parliament. It is not that Alsace lacks identity, far from it actually, it is just that perhaps the region lacks a French identity. Alsace’s identity seems vastly more « european » than any other place I have ever been. This feeling is reinforced by the fact that it supported the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in September of 1992 more than any other region in France. Only fifty-two out of 894 municipalities voted against it.

It is because of all this that I have decided Strasbourg really is the place for me. No offence to the French, as I hate stereotypes and have met so many lovely French people here, but I had my concerns about moving to France. After a traumatic experience invloving being trapped on a boat with five French chavs for 12 days, my opinion of the French wasn’t particularly high, and I expected to like France, but not to love it. I’m not sure how I feel about France as a whole, but I can certainly say I am in love with the magical town of Strasbourg.

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