The Middle Brow – On France and otherness

Kristin Scott Thomas in Sarah's Key
By Shannon Guy 

Booker T. Washington once said, “I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.” Perhaps our instinctive reaction to those acts of hatred which make us cower in fear or scream for justice are also the first steps that we take in the narrowing of our souls. 

Perhaps we need to go against the tide of our natural reckonings, swim above the waves of the prevailing political and media conditioning that has us believe in the destructive elements of the concept of Other, and travel toward a destination of understanding.

The recent shootings in Toulouse have shocked and appalled many throughout the world, not just in France. Framed against the often vitriolic discourse in the French presidential election campaign, the acts are no less abhorrent though perhaps less surprising. This should provoke much national soul-searching but the focus will, I fear, be directed the wrong way.

The obvious question to be asked, "How could this country raise someone to turn on his or her compatriots in such a horrific manner?", will probably not be the focus. Instead of an examination of society’s role in the conditions that made these acts possible, it is likely that questions will be directed toward a particular community.

How does something like this happen in the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité (freedom, equality, brotherhood)? The truth, as it often is, is complex.

France is a multi-cultural society, with both the largest Muslim and largest Jewish populations in Western Europe. It has a rich history of Catholicism but is staunchly secular. It has travelled through a dark history including the expulsion of Protestants in the 17th century and of complicity in the Holocaust under Nazi occupation (the film Sarah’s Key tells the story of the Vel’ d’Hiv round up beautifully) to a nation which has opened its borders to North Africans and Asians, West Africans and Europeans, those from the islands of the Caribbean and those from the islands of the South Pacific.

Step beyond the smiling faces of a multi-cultural soccer World Cup winning team that suggest unity through diversity, though, and you will find cracks in the facade. Simply, many children and grandchildren of these immigrants often do not feel French. They are made to feel Other. Despite being born and raised in France, they are, by many people, still considered Arab or African or Asian.

A close friend is French and moved to London after she finished school. She is still there, 12 years on. I asked her why she would forsake delicious croissants and pungent cheese and beautiful wine and Haussmann boulevards to live in London. She likes London because in London she is French. In France, people would ask where she was from. She would say “Paris”. No, "Where originally?", they would stress. "Paris," always "Paris", she would say.

She tired of having that conversation, of her skin colour seemingly providing an answer to a question that didn’t need to be asked, an answer that, by definition, seemed to be at odds with her own response. In order for her to be considered French, it seemed to be necessary to leave France.

We spoke about this also in the context of the French ban of the burqa and niqab. She provided a different perspective. To her, this policy represents a complete failing in the French state to integrate. It often is not immigrants who choose to wear the burqa and niqab, she told me, but rather the children and grandchildren of immigrants. When they are told they are not French, when they are made to feel Other, they look to embrace something else that can become part of their identity.

Those very visible manifestations of Otherness, as well as the less overt, provide an opportunity for political discourse which benefits only those who seek a political mandate and power. France, like the rest of Europe, is facing challenging economic times for which there is no easy solution. The politicians know this but they need to present solutions so that they can stand a chance of being elected.

The most effective way of finding a solution is to define the problem and understand it. The most convenient tactic is to simple define a simplistic problem and define an equally simplistic solution. Thus, for some parties, immigrants and their children (Others) have become the problem – they take our jobs, which is why we have such high unemployment; they don’t work, which is why we spend so much on the chômage (dole); they use our health system, which is why you have to wait too long; and so on. And the solution, of course, is then easy. Stop the Others.

That has been the message throughout the election campaign. That is why it would surprise me no more or no less if the culprit of these acts were a white French person seduced by the promise of an easy fix to the country’s problems that is predicated on hatred and xenophobia than if it were an Other.

Now is not the time to hate but to seek to understand. Justice and understanding are not mutually exclusive, nor is understanding seeking to find an excuse or justification. It is about finding a solution by comprehending the problem, rather than creating a problem which suits political agendas. And it is, ultimately, about not allowing our own souls to become narrow and degraded like that of a faceless gunman.

Update: Friday 23rd March. Mohamed Merah, the faceless gunman accused of killing seven people in southern France, is dead. French interior minister Claude Gueant told reporters that Merah was found dead after jumping from a window while still shooting at police. Merah told negotiators he was trained by Al Qaeda in Pakistan and also said he killed three soldiers last week and four people at a Jewish school, including three children, to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of French army involvement in Afghanistan. (Source:

Shannon Guy is an almost-30-year-old Aussie expat living in Champagne, France, who contributes to My French Life.

Girl With a Satchel


Anonymous said...

Love this. Beautiful way with words.

Scarlett Harris @ The Early Bird Catches the Worm said...

Great post.
While the banning of the burqa is something I completely disagree with (not to mention the burqa itself, but that's a whole other story), France is not that different from Australia in the perspectives you've described in this piece.
I've just started a new job, and the conversations in the staff room go something along the lines of "an Asian said this". Or, "there're lots of non-Aussies who come here", when, in fact, they are "Aussies", just not the white bread ones these people have in their heads.

S said...

Hi Scarlett

Thanks for the comment. I agree that it also happens in Australia and it frustrates and saddens me when I see it in the community. In fact, just today I saw a ute with the sticker "F*** off, we're full" which makes me quite ashamed, particularly as my partner is French (yes, we're in Australia at the moment).

I suppose the major difference for me is that the political discourse in Australia is completely different - right now we are talking about mining billionaires and taxes and other economic matters. Yes, "Stop the Boats" occasionally comes into it but it is certainly not a focus.

In France, it feels as though it is a focus. Not just during the election campaign (though it certainly gets worse) but also between electoral cycles. Making halal meat a major election issue when France is pretty close to economic crisis is one example of this (here is a link to the story in English: Of course, they banned the burqa a long time before the election and, what was even more surprising for me was that all the major political parties supported it!

The whole concept of Other really frustrates me, both in Australia and in France!

Camilla @ Girls Are Made From Pepsi said...

I'm not sure if anyone was watching Q and A the other night but Christa Hughes spoke of how Australia, compared to other countries, is very, very racist. A lot of travellers have expressed the same sentiment to me too, although I find it differs from area to area. Having moved to Perth almost a year ago now, I have to say I need to remove my jaw from the pavement a few times a week over the spine-tingling things people say about "boongas" (Aborginals), Asians and Africans. It's also particularly unsettling when it's the people who are close to you who express these beliefs. I feel racism in Perth is a particular problem. I found it was in Sydney too, but not to this extent. I wonder how it is in Qld and Vic...