Nested Belonging and Gender

Leonie Bausch, Budapest

Abstract: Nested Belonging and Gender: How to Claim Frenchness in 1918-1919 Alsace

Following the ‘return’ of Alsace to France in 1918-19, the French civil-military administration of Alsace issued hierarchical descent-based identity cards to the local population, intended to identify and eventually remove German individuals from the borderland. Because of their restricted rights and social exclusion, many Alsatians who were classified as ‘mixed origin’ appealed their initial categorisation, arguing that they were French not despite but because they were Alsatian.

A case study of appeal processes in the border town Wissembourg shows that many petitioners co-opted gendered narratives of Alsatian Francophilia and patriotism to achieve re-classification as ‘French Alsatian.’ Emphasising their local integration, the petitioners constructed a sense of nested belonging that clashed with French ideals of a uniform national community. Simultaneously, the identity card regulations and appeals reinforced gendered roles of women as ethno-cultural assimilators and men as civic participants in the nation-state, (re-)constructing heterogenous ties to Frenchness.

In a moment and space of contestation, French administrators and Alsatian residents were forced to spell out why they were (or were not) French. The Alsatian identity card system illuminates the perceived threat of national ambiguity in the borderland, gendered and local strategies to claim Frenchness, and clashes between different understandings of national belonging.