Living as an Immigrant in France

This post will have nothing whatsoever to do with sewing or knitting or any other kind of crafting. I experienced two separate incidents this week, each disturbing in its own way, that I want to talk about. So if you want to avoid reading my thoughts about immigration, racism, xenophobia, and just hate in general, then you should stop reading now.

I, as a white American, get to avoid experiencing a lot of prejudice and hate directed toward me simply because I am white. This is doubly true in France: because I am white and I am American, I already physically resemble the French model identity enough to escape much notice. People notice that I am American once I start speaking; so my Otherness is outed (generally) only once I open my mouth. And even then I escape a lot of prejudice that other immigrants might face because people often assume that as an American I share similar ideals to the French (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité) and even, that because I'm American, I'm well-behaved (loud, but well-behaved), well-educated and Christian.

I feel that all immigrants should be able to experience a safe zone, where they can walk down the street without being harassed - just like the ideal for everyone else - and - JUST LIKE THE IDEAL FOR EVERYONE ELSE - be judged on their individual merits alone and not on their ethnicity, origins, religion, gender or (for lack of a better phrase) sexual orientation.

Unfortunately this week I got a peek into the dark underbelly of how some French people view immigrants, specifically immigrants coming from Africa, the Maghreb, and Eastern Europe. This was not the first time I saw this, nor, I fear, will it be the last time I will be confronted by racism and xenophobia.

(I say SOME French people and I certainly hope it is not a majority).

My forced exploration into this topic began on Tuesday when an acquaintance somehow started talking to me about the immigrants coming from Africa. This person expressed that all (or a vast majority of) African immigrants don't work, have multiple spouses, and in general, live off and abuse the social security system. Indeed, this person identified the intention to live off social security as the entire reason that immigrants from Africa come to France. Later on, this person complained that these people - as well as people from the Maghreb and Eastern Europe - commit crimes, and in general, just don't fit in because they play loud music and dress differently. Basically, the fall of the economy and "French civilization" was blamed on these immigrant groups.

This person went on to hope that Marine Le Pen (I linked to the French Wikipedia article) get elected as President this year so that immigrants will be too scared to come to France. One of the slogans associated with Le Pen and the political party the Front National is "La France aux Français." France for the French. I pointed out that (obviously) I don't want Le Pen in power because I am not French and I don't want to live in a nation that is (even more) hostile to immigrants. The reply was, oh but this doesn't concern you, it's those other immigrants that are problem.

I found these sentiments repeated during another conversation that cropped up with unrelated people. Only this time, the speakers were much more vitriolic. One person even declared to hate all Muslims.

To give you context, this happened during one my English classes. We had originally been talking about the Great Wall in China, and somehow talking about the damage caused by tourists to the Great Wall led this person to talk about Iran and how "all Arabs beat their wives," etc. and yet love the American dollar. Then the hate part was added.

I am utterly blown away that an adult, educated person could make such a gross generalization and confess to hating millions of people simply because they belong to a particular religion.

My response to this was: Do you think it's okay if I say that I hate all Jews?!?

I do not hate Jews!! I was purposefully drawing a parallel with WWII and the Holocaust (something we have previously discussed in class) because this tragedy was in part fueled by hate and resentment toward one group of people simply because they belonged to a different faith. In other words, look what position hate and racism put France (and the world) into 50 years ago. Why on earth would you want to - AGAIN - hate and persecute people simply because they belong to a particular faith?!?

The person who professed to hating all Muslims didn't want to answer me, but eventually replied that all people have the right to think what they want. To which I replied, to THINK what you want is one thing, to say it out loud in a classroom is totally different. And then to act upon that hate and try to spread it is quite another.

To be clear, I do believe people have the right to think what they want and to express their point of view. AND I'm still horrified that someone would have such a thought. AND I find the comment completely inappropriate for the context. AND if someone chooses to share such an inappropriate comment with people they don't know intimately, then they have to be prepared for the consequences, which include, me, as a teacher, pointing out faulty reasoning. Other consequences include causing their fellow students to feel offended, attacked, saddened, alienated, etc.

Anyhow, I did not simply want to cut off the discussion there because I felt like the can of worms was already open, so we should use the opportunity to try to have a constructive discussion. So, I did my best to discuss how, for example, the American Bill of Rights views and deals with the freedom to practice religion, versus the French laws. I'm not sure how constructive our discussion was, but at least it has given me the opportunity to write this blog post.

In the follow-up discussion, some of the students were accusing recent immigrant Muslims in France of certain anti-social behavior, like not following medical protocol, setting cars on fire, etc. So here is where it is important to point out that collecting statistics about a person's religion is illegal in France. There is absolutely no state-sanctioned statistical evidence that can say it was people (who happened to be Muslim) who have done such things because nowhere is this recorded, not on a police report, not on medical documents, not on any official paperwork. So people who are accusing Muslims in France of certain acts cannot do so with any hard proof that Muslims do these things more often than any other religious group.

Embedded within the problem of religious prejudice is racial prejudice. Some people assume that if you look a certain way, have a certain skin tone, that you must also practice a certain religion. And, like in America, certain kinds of crime gets associated more often with non-white people, regardless of statistical backing. In other words, people make racist assumptions. My husband is constantly being mistaken for every kind of ethnicity except what he is and I can only imagine what other kind of assumptions people make.

As our conversation developped, several students said that they do not view the wearing of the head scarf by women in France to be in itself dangerous, but they view it as a symbol of those women's difference. My word: their Otherness. And they went on to explain that they interpret the head scarf as a sign that those women do not want to integrate (their word). They were disturbed by the visual reminder of difference.

This brings me to the heart of the matter. The model of integration in France, from my perspective after having lived here as a foreigner for four years now, consists of the immigrant giving up his/her original culture, customs, and beliefs and replacing them with French ones. The French beliefs being, according to my students, Catholic beliefs. In their words, France is not legally a Catholic state, but it is a de facto culture one.

As my husband says, an immigrant in France is asked to put away any prior national or cultural identity and take on French beliefs and French ways of being. The model is not one of blending, not one of adapting, but one of disavowal and conversion. And as my students pointed out, France is a de facto Catholic culture. So for many immigrants, were they to follow this model of integration, they would have to literally convert religions.

I, too, would literally have to convert because I am not Christian. This difference does not show up in how I dress, yet it is as real a difference as that of a head-scarf-wearing woman.

From my perspective, this model of integration is doomed to fail. When a country asks its new citizens to divest themselves of any connection to their native country, to rid themselves of any cultural Otherly behavior, of any native pride, then that country is asking its immigrants to be self-hating. And while some immigrants might want to devoid themselves of their native language, culture, etc. for a myriad of reasons, other immigrants are not ashamed of their origins and could feel resentment against those who try to strip them of their origins or denigrate their original culture.

And, depending on the economy situation, education level, emotional maturity, etc. of the person feeling such pressure and such resentment (and having HATE directed at that them, and being blamed for the downfall of society, etc.), this resentment might result in anti-social behavior, ranging from graffiti and schoolyard bullying to outright violence.

So, my wish is for all immigrants (and all people for that matter) to be allowed to be simultaneously be proud of where they came from and of where they are. My wish is for all immigrants to be able to dress as they like and practice their own faiths (of course, with limits...for example, no murdering people as part of your religious rites). I want no more of this hypocritical stance that says that difference is only tolerated if it is not seen, which is the cultural equivalent of the US Armed Services "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy.

And I desire this for France not only so that I and my fellow immigrants can make a safe, happy place for ourselves here, but so that native French people can reap the benefits of being a strong, diverse society. I believe that the varied perspectives and traditions of the French peoples would make the country that much more capable of responding to challenges and creating solutions in every field: science, politics, the arts, you name it.

To sum up, please, people, put away your hate and your fear and instead open up your eyes and your heart and learn something from that stranger who is your neighbor.

Just as a side note, during the discussion I had with my husband last night about what had happened, I asked him why thinks people are capable of hating entire groups of people. His answer reminded me very much of what Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, basically that groups of people (societies) form their cultural identities in part by having enemies, by being NOT THEM. This may be so, but I choose to believe that this is a learned behavior, and not innate in the human psyche, and thus that we can unlearn this!!!

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. I'm sure other immigrants have had different experiences; I really hope that other people have had more positive ones.


  1. A very tricky subject to have to deal with I think!The thing about living in a democracy is that people should be allowed to express their thoughts however distasteful it is to the majority.We have to trust that the democratic process and sound political argument works well and that the Le Pen's of this world together with their followers are not given a chance.
    I might be naive I know but I am hopeful.

  2. The people of France have every right to wish for their country not to lose its own unique and rich heritage and culture. Do you think the immigrants that are causing angry reactions from the French are not respecting that culture?
    To paraphrase the words in this post; to choose to *not* conform to a culture could be interpreted as hatred of that culture, too.

  3. Carolyn, That's a good question - what are some immigrants doing that is causing anger? Absolutely I think some people are not respecting the laws and culture of the country. For example, there have been issues with forced marriages and with polygamy.

    And I too, condemn these actions and think these issues should be addressed. What I *do not* do, however, is condemn the entire group for what a small number do. And I make sure to condemn the *action* and not the person. What makes me upset is when one entire group of people is lumped together, when individuals are not judged by their merits alone. Judging all Americans living in France based on my actions, for example, would be an injustice.

    Moreover, the recent statistics indicate that there are anywhere between 1 - 4 million Muslims living in France, some immigrants, some whose families have been French for generations. I point this out only to say that having French Muslims (and French Jews and Protestants for that matter) already makes up part of the French culture.

    There is a history of religious tolerance *and* religious intolerance in France. I can only hope that French people of all faiths will choose to follow the kinder, more peaceful route, which is for me, that of religious tolerance.

    I sincerely thank you for your comments and questions. This is a highly sensitive subject, which in my opinion, makes it all the more important to discuss. :)


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