Interview: 100 years after reintegration into France, Alsace remains a region ‘in between’
On 8 December 1918, the French president Raymond Poincaré, along with Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and several generals officially marked the return of French rule in the Alsace-Lorraine region. The region passed from the German Empire to France at the end of the First World War. As part of the reintegration into France, special local laws were put in place, which remain today, and the region continues to straddle the two cultures.
The region had been German since 1871, which made a mark on the institutions and the people.
Jean-Marie Woehrling, the president of the Alsatian Cultural and bilingualism Centre and the president of the Institute for local law in Alsace-Lorraine, explains the history and influence of being "in between" for 100 years.
Below is an interview with RFI, edited for clarity.
"During the 50 years of being German, Alsace and Lorraine changed, and even if they agreed to become French, they also wanted to keep their identity, their institutions, traditions and local laws."
"I would say the people from Alsace and Lorraine really became aware of their identity, which is to be between France and Germany. What they wanted was to have access to both cultures and languages."
Q: Which is why, after the return to France in 1918/1919, a unique set of laws were put in place, which applied to just Alsace and Lorraine.
"Exactly, but probably the people of Alsace and Lorraine wanted more: they wanted real autonomy. What we now call 'local law' in Alsace and Lorraine is just a small concession granted by the French authorities, because they couldn't do otherwise."
Q: What are these local laws that remain today?
"One of the most important areas is the status of religion. There special local laws for the Catholic and Protestant churches, and the Jews. Also, the 1905 French law of separation of church and state was not introduced in Alsace and Lorraine."
"This means the role of the churches is much more important in Alsace-Lorraine; they have a role in the public sphere. It's also symbolic: for the people, it's a demonstration of concentration between everyone, without considering beliefs. All beliefs are accepted and protected by the public authorities. There is an idea of cooperation within society, whereas in the rest of France we have a tradition of confrontation."
Q: But what about Islam? It is not one of the religions officially part of the local laws?
"The representatives of Islam agree with the local law. They also benefit from them because they can get public subsidies, like the other churches. They have several advantages in Alsace-Lorraine that they don't have in the rest of France."
Q: Another big issue in Alsace-Lorraine is the language.
"That is fundamental. But what Alsatians want is bilingualism. What is sometimes called the Alsatian language is a dialect of German. So they want to keep this tradition of bilingualism, to be able to work, to find their cultural satisfaction, in both the French and German language."
Q: So the legacy of this history is a desire and identity of being in between. Is that still the case today?
"Alsace is not the only one in between, there is Luxemburg, or the Belgian-German community, and in France you have the Basque region. So we are not unique. But these regions do not want to become autonomous and split from the central state. No. In all these regions there is a strong sense of European unity. The solution is not to split from France, but to have a European Union where everyone finds their place."