Multicultural issues: France and Britain

‘We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different
beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams’.  (Jimmy Carter)

   *************************************************

Some time ago I caught the midnight metro from the centre of Lyons.  The carriage was almost empty and I took a seat diagonally opposite a young, north African man.   I noticed that he was smoking and talking aloud to himself.  But he seemed in a world of his own and no problem – except that he was obviously quite drunk and distressed.

‘Identity’, he kept repeating, in French, ‘what’s my identity?  I have no identity’.

The rest of his words were in arabic and I didn’t understand them, although they appeared to be angry, rambling words – words that he spat out vehemently, before again repeating his lines about identity.  I stared out the window into the blackness of the metro tunnel and watched a platform appear in golden, glowing light.  No-one entered my carriage at this stop and we moved off again into darkness.

I then made a fatal mistake and glanced over at the young man – just at the moment when he looked towards me.  Our eyes met.

‘Never make eye contact with a crazy drunk’, I should have remembered.

Well, I had and as a result the young man pulled himself out of his seat and lumbered towards me.

‘What’s your identity? he demanded, arm resting on the seat in front of mine, cigarette between his fingers. ‘Your identity, what’s your identity?’

My response was to plead ignorance and explain, in English, that I didn’t understand.

‘Ah!  A traveller,’ he acknowledged as a snake might acknowledge a mouse accidentally entering his hole whilst licking his lips.

He eyed my day-sack (containing car papers, passport etc) lying  on my lap, and in a flash snatched it, turned round and made off down the aisle.  I leapt up and lunged after him, grabbed my bag and gave him a hearty push.  He fell across some seats and looked up at me in astonishment.  Then he was up, on his feet, giving my shins a kick.

‘You want to steal my bag ?’ I growled menacingly, ‘just try!’

He thought about this threat as the next metro station appeared.  The train came to a halt, doors slid open, and the young man swiftly made his exit.

End of story.

_________

Believe me, I don’t write this as a personal tale of heroism – a few pints of dutch courage had definitely helped.  But what was most annoying was that this young man was north African.  Annoying, because I’d previously chosen to defend French muslims from racist comments.  Like several other English colleagues in France, I’d disliked hearing anti-muslim sentiments expressed by non-muslim French. Discussions on the banning of muslim headresses in schools,  as ‘proselytizing symbols of religion’,  were similarly difficult to accept.  I mean, nuns got away with wearing their headresses – and as for ‘proselytizing’; no-one says a thing about the Jehovas Witnesses stopping you in the street.  Hence, these rules did seem particularly, and unfairly, targetted at muslims.  Furthermore, as an English teacher I’d spent hours conversing with the occassional muslim student about Islam, and I’d appreciated their religious devotion and love of God.   Hence, I was prone to offer pro-muslim points-of-view whenever I heard them being verbally attacked.

‘Oh well!  There’s always one’, I decided, ‘just my bad luck, tonight.’

A few weeks later a friend was attacked and knocked unconscious by another north African guy, on the street, in central Lyons.

I then began to find north Africans in France just a little more difficult to defend.

Believe me, this goes against my grain:  I’m trained in anthropology – a study which appreciates the diversity of human experience from a humanitarian point of view.

********************************

I’m white.

That’s just a fact – rather like saying I’ve got brown eyes, a gap between my front teeth, a slight paunch and an in-growing toenail.  Yes, wouldn’t racism be strange if it was based on height rather than skin colour.  But it all amounts to the same thing:  ‘Ugh! I can’t stand tall people, they’re taking all our jobs.  They should be sent back to the land of tall people.’

I’m actually about 5 ft 9 inches – which isn’t that tall for a Brit.  But I’ve become a French Mediterranean dweller where people are generally shorter so I can blend in without feeling ‘different’.  That is, until I open my mouth!   Then a few seconds pass where I see the listener’s brain twist inside-out as it tries to deal with my anglo-franco accent.  Vraiment!  Yes!  I can almost hear the cogs turning as my London/Chateauneuf-sur-le-mer dialect is decoded; a process which  evidently involves substantial mental effort.

 ‘My French pronunciation can’t be that bad!’  I complain to my French wife.

‘It is!’  She simply replies.

So, the process of linguistic elimination continues; first by clearing me of having north African origin.  My physical, facial features help and I’m soon narrowed down to being some type of German, British or American creature.  No wonder the actual content of my words pass over their heads and when I’ve finished speaking French people look at me with a glazed:

‘Quoi?

Thankfully, my wife can interpret, with an apologetic smile, before leading me away as some curio she picked up on a foreign trip.

Apparently, multiculturalism is loosing ground in France.  At least, President Sarkozy has recently declared it:  ‘a failure’ .  For centuries, by contrast, the influx of other nationalities was not a problem.  Like most other European countries, France has grown as a consolidation of numerous peoples:  Romans, Celts, Franks, Germans, Spanish, Italians, Polish, Portuguese, Armenians…  many of these arrived during the twentieth century and now make up 25% of the French population (see here).   This is all part of a ‘French Universalism’, a leading ethos in forming the French Republic; ideologically similar to the American experience – about which former President Jimmy Carter stated:

We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different
beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.  (see above)

But as our colonial crimes now come back to haunt us (the French in North Africa, the British almost everywhere), the influx of Maghrebians onto French soil has not gone down too well.  Integration is seen as a problem.  Many French people say that French and muslim cultures are too different – that Islam does not blend with Catholicism/French secularism, that arabic does not blend with french, that French/European identity does not blend with North African identity.  Indeed, far right politicians (e.g. Le Pen) build their parties on this issue:

The reason and the result is a viscious circle of growing distrust.  Indoctrinated youngsters learn from their elders and climb aboard the ‘anti-assimilation’/’I hate other cultures’ –  band-wagon.  Inexcusable behaviours result.  Jewish and muslim grave stones are desecrated –

          

  – whilst anger surges amoungst muslim youths and elders.  To translate some of the terms in the video below, we hear:

‘We need to kill the whites’.

‘Burn the French flag’.

‘God save us from the devil – that a Frenchman becomes a muslim convert’.

‘Let’s burn the church’.

In addition to seeing sexual and physical attacks in public, protectionism, church burglary, riots and car burning, and intense hate:

And so, Sarkozy’s declaration that multiculturalism is a failure may have some grounds.  Obviously, there are problems of social integration in France.

But does multiculturalism work in Britain – the ultimate global colonizer?  I would like to think so.  I would like to think that multiculturalism adds colour and diversity to British society.  Perhaps I’m too idealistic, but I do like the concept of a ‘family of man’, living in harmony, sharing backgrounds and life-views.  Wouldn’t life be boring if we were all the same?  Or even, in the words of one small boy, Pi Patel:

‘Why can’t I be a Christian, a Hindu and a Muslim?‘   (Life of Pi.  Yann Martel)

Of course, Britain also has not been without it’s problems of racial intergration.  The late 1950s saw many attacks against in-coming Jamaicans.  Then the 1970s saw race riots targetted against in-coming Asian communities.   There was a major riot in London, 1985, centrered around a racial issue, in which one policeman (PC Blackelock) was decapitated.  More recently, in 2011, London exploded in several nights of violence resulting from the death of a muslim man by police.  However, these days British riots tend to be multicultural affairs and less racially motivated.   In the British context, the wheel has turned and social miscontent and aggression is now ‘collectively’ targetted against the authorities – as seen with 2010 student riots, 2011 London riots; admittedly, often exacerbated by anti-social youths committing violent acts just for ‘the fun of it’.

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As a very young child in the early 1960s I shared my cot with a very young black boy of Jamaican origin.  I don’t know the exact reason why.  I guess his mother was unable to look after him at the time and my parents offered to help.  Possibly we fought in the cot over a toy or a milk bottle.  Possibly we kicked each other in the night.  But we got along just fine until his mother was able to have him back.  And maybe that’s why I’m now so open to the concept of multiculturalism.  In the late 1970s, many of my school mates in Leicester were Asian. It was just how it was. In Germany, in the early 1980s, I lived closely amoungst the German ‘gastarbëiter’ (foreign workers), sharing a room with two men from Bangaladash.  We got along just fine – once I got used to their incredibly hot curries!   Looking back on these experiences I can only say that they were ‘culturally enriching’ to the full.

These more optimistic sentiments of multiculturalism are expressed in this video clip below:

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So, is this all a utopian dream?   Apparently, according to current Prime minister David Cameron, it is.

Certainly, this is not as harsh as Enoch Powell’s famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (1968), which attacked British immigration policies and warned:

‘As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood’ .

Thankfully, his prediction never came to pass. Yet, with the arrival of millions of foreign nationals into British society the question of British identity has become increasingly discussed, debated and disputed.

Cameron’s speech is a recognition expression of ‘British identity and values’, which welcomes and integrates other values, whilst still retaining it’s own core values.  Where there is a clash of values, such as with regard to sexual discrimination or mistreatment, then there is a ‘British viewpoint’, as re-ified through legal and political institutions which have evolved over centuries and through the democratic process.  This ‘British viewpoint’, then, judges acceptability of ‘other’ values and practices within British social life.   Some values or practices may be declared unacceptable, despite our willingness to be multicultural and respect other customs.  Female circumcision is one example, forced marriages another.   ‘The truth of multiculturalism’, thusis that globalization is not a ‘free for all’.   There are cultures and customs to respect if we choose live within them.   This is what David Cameron wishes to re-affirm. 

The French wish to affirm a similar principle:  That there are certain codes of behaviour that unite French people.  That there is a French ‘way of life’ to which immigrants and ex-pats should subscribe in order to integrate.  That such integration involves accepting ethical standards which define a certain ‘French identity’.   And personally, I do accept French behavioural codes whilst living in France.  I drive on the right, regularly join the baker’s queue for my baguette, go to the restaurant more than the pub, take flowers for my hostess when invited to dinner, greet friends and neighbours with a kiss on both cheeks, and don’t indulge in the current British passion for binge-drinking and subsequent vomiting  – so it seems from news reports!  (Incidentally, neither do I do this in England).

On the other hand, I see no harm with halal fast-food outlets; the wearing of traditional costumes, and muslim mosques.  In Britain, through the process of de-colonialisation, peoples from around the globe have now come to settle.   It’s the ebb-and-flow counter re-action to British colonialism.  Now, after decades, that initial British public reaction has changed from a national protectionism to a national acceptance.  Consequently, Britain is a more varied and colourful land.  In fact, I miss this diversity in France.  I miss the curry sauce poured liberally over my chips; the samosa’s and Indian spicy mix from the deli.; the worldwide range of restaurants on the high street, the rastafarian blues’ clubs, and the Nottinghill Carnival.   I even miss the sound of Bollywood movies coming through an Indian  neighbour’s window.  But, for sure, I fully understand French mistrust of those muslims who not only wish to preserve their traditional customs, but also express distain for the (French) culture in which they live – sometimes very aggressively too, as described at the start and as seen in the video.

Perhaps France too should accept their colonial past in which they invaded north African lands.  Perhaps they should accept that importing Algerian workers who were cousins of Algerian rebels being fought in the Algerian war (1954-1962) would not make for a loyal muslim population (read here: approach 4).   Perhaps they should accept the influx of north Africans into France as a counter re-action to French colonialism.  Perhaps that could be a starting point of French/ north African reconciliation.  This takes time and courage; a ‘moving on’ from the past.  The benefits could be a positive multiculturalism of diversity and colour, whilst retaining a core sense of national identity.  

Has this been achieved in Britain?  David Cameron seems to question that it has.  For me, it depends on which article or newspaper I read.   Nevertheless, I aim to be optimistic and see the positive benefits of multiculturalism.  So – how  about this for a British/Indian/Afro-American multicultural blend, as seen on ‘Britain’s got Talent’?

This is multiculturalism at it’s best!   I hope the utopian dream has not been lost.

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Writing this blog is simply a personal attempt to understand.

13 comments on “Multicultural issues: France and Britain

  1. Ewen says:

    I’m fascinated to see western liberalism shoot itself in the foot as it attempts to come to terms with the continuing presence of religion and tradition. Tradition and belief are not things that will fade in the face of modernity’s march toward ‘utopia’.

  2. Paul says:

    I have just re-read this blog reply. It doesn’t sound very good but it just came out like that. So, here it is:

    Belief, yes. But belief in what ? Belief in evolution and science or belief in religion ?

    France has seperated religion and state, England has not done so.

    I’m an English man living in France and I find myself in much the same situation as Phil. I bet most English TEFL teachers do.

    I have to compare London and Paris. If you go to London, you get very much a multi-cultural feel about the place. Trafalgar Square in the summer-time is wonderful; there’s a multi-cultural atmosphere. I can’t quite identify it, but there’s not the same feel about Paris.

    Well, perhaps I can identify it, I’ll go back to the latest book I read: 60 million French people can’t be wrong (biased book but recommended!). The main point of the book is that France is a republic, most things (if not everything) revolve around the republic, and the French mentality is, by and large, a republican mentality.

    What does that mean ? That means they have republican values (liberty, equality, fraternity). Is that a huge over-generalization ? Probably, but by and large it’s true in the same way that being a respectable, law-abiding citizen is true of the English mentality.

    The trouble for me is there is so much French rigueur (italics), that that mentality is not going to change. Not for anyone, not even for Tunisians. I think the English mentality is to accept different cultures, whereas the French one seems to be to impose their own. And there’s no doubt about it, This creates tension.

    I’m going to be scathing but for a people where equality is valued, racial equality is not and neither is women’s equality, at least not in terms of equal salaries.

    So, it’s a chicken and egg problem. What happened first ? Did the Tunisians turn up and start wreaking havoc, or did the French create the tension by being so stubborn and rigourous with their own values.

    According to youtube (sorry about the un-reliability of my sources), De Gaulle said this:

    Il ne faut pas se payer de mots ! C’est très bien qu’il y ait des Français jaunes, des Français noirs, des Français bruns. Ils montrent que la France a une vocation universelle. Mais à condition qu’ils restent une petite minorité. Sinon, la France ne serait plus la France. Nous sommes quand même avant tout un peuple européen de race blanche, de culture grecque et latine et de religion chrétienne.”
    (A l’Elysée, le jeudi 5 Mars 1959. Dans “C’était De Gaulle – Alain Peyrefitte – Editions de Fallois/Fayard, Paris 1994”.)

    He’s not really saying let’s all become a multi-cultural people now, is he ?

    I also read that we will now be “all French”.

    Well, he got it wrong, we come back to religion and belief. He should have said, “we are all human”
    (“nous sommes tous des hommes”!). That is the basis for multiculturalism, that is the basis for anthropology.

    There would not be so much tension in France if the French were good at accepting cultural difference in their own country. That’s what makes the difference between London and Paris. Yes, there have been terrorist attacks in England, but let’s not paint everyone with the same brush.

    Yes, I was reading on a blog the other day of extremist stories in Afghanistan where Hamid Karzai said a raped woman could escape the death sentence because she accepted to marry her rapist.

    But that doesn’t mean all islamic people are evil.

    Coming back to belief:

    Religion cannot be the sole basis for decision. Human sacrifice was rife in the past because of religion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binding_of_Isaac. So should we base our decisions on the basis of what God tells us ? No, of course, not, people were listening to their gods a few thousand years ago and killing their children.

    The latins (and everybody else) needs to listen to their own expression: RESPICE FINEM (Consider the outcome), if that had happened nobody would have been sacrificed in the name of religion. Belief, yes, is important, but belief in what ? And what are the consequences of that belief ?

    But I can understand the French. Historically, it’s worked out this way. There was a historic seperation of church and state. However, Phil’s right: how come the Jehovah’s witnesses are still turning up at my door ?

    • english13 says:

      You’ve given me a lot to reflect on, Paul, and I thank you for that – without replying to all – for the moment at least. It would, in fact, be better to have a French person’s reflections. For me it’s just a lot of ponderings and suppositions.
      One thing, though, is this question of ‘The Republic’. Yes, France is actually on it’s fifth since the revolution and I believe there has even been talk of a sixth. So, though they may seem unmoveable in some regards, and damned protectionist in terms of guarding their French language and heritage, they still seem to be jostling the French polico-cultural building blocks around until they get a truly satisying result. Is this, then, they way that the French move forward, in staggered, stuttering phases, or is it simply that the French are never satisfied?

  3. Paul says:

    I don’t know exactly how the system of different republics work.

    However, on another point, and about your blog, I have to say that English people are racist, by and large about German people. This is because of the war and the football but I don’t think it’s deniable that there’s a largely anti-German feeling in England. Perhaps it has changed since I lived there.

    You can’t exactly say that we’re in love with the Italians or the French either!

    • english13 says:

      Hmmm! I think we have to differentiate between sibling rivalry, neighbourly micky-taking, and fear/loathing of a cultural ‘other’. Personally, I wouldn’t class all these within the ‘racism’ bracket. And yes, times change. Germans, Italians, and Spaniards are no longer referred to the Hun ( ‘Croat’ or ‘Bosch’), WOPs or Spics. Australians may still call the English ‘wingeing pommes’, though, just as the Scottish may revel in Braveheart’s Hollywood style demolition of ‘The English’. But there’s a level (culturally based, no doubt) where such pejoration crosses a line into unacceptability. Above this line, ‘hey, it’s just a joke! No offence intended!’ Or: ‘Everyone knows that’s just a film with little reference to reality’.
      So, the issue (s) I’m trying adress in theis blog are where attitudes have definitely descended way beyond the fine line between ‘ribbing’ and making an overly risqué comment. That is into the arena of aggressive racism. English football supporters may feel an anti-German sentiment when we play against our old arch rivals, but these days the outside match brawls are more controlled than in the 1970s – aren’t they? Haven’t we, as a nation, moved on?
      By the way, when my car broke down last week the pick up truck driver was scathing against the young muslim community in the south of France for always living on the assidic, never wanting to work, and surviving by drug dealing. Does he have a point? This seems to be quite a commonly held view.

  4. Hello English13. First it’s courageous of you to write a political blog for you might receive stupid, crazy or outrageous comments. Usually the level of the comments matches the article’s; it’s the case here: only very good contributions so far. Your article shows the two sides of the problem very well: the clear and clean utopic side where everything is nice in the best of worlds. Just love each other and everything will go right. The dark side you have also shown very well is unfortunately more realistic: we’re going straight into the wall if we keep on doing like the ostrich. As a Frenchman, I know what is happening in France very well and the future of Europe is dark. I haven’t got a ready-made solution, though. We should observe what worked and what is working in the world and try to adapt it here and now. Best regards Huberaime

    • english13 says:

      Hi Hubert,
      yes, I appreciate that questions of integration, assimilation and marginalization are complex – and global. So, thank you, as a french voice, for replying and indicating that in being a European/world-wide issue, France is not alone.
      In terms of observing what has worked – I think perhaps northern Ireland offers an example. Since ‘the troubles’ have ‘ended’, much time, thought and work has been put into aiding reconciliation of the two, formerly opposed, communities. Partly this is through ‘inter-faith’ dialogue and sharing. A lesson to be learnt?

  5. Hello Phil, hello everybody
    Ireland is a good example to follow. A long time ago, the English were sometimes at war with the Welsh and the Scots and fortunately those nations are now like one hand’s fingers, except perhaps on Saturday evenings, on football fields. But Ireland is a neighbour, not so different culturally from Great Britain. The point in your article is the problem between nations from different continents, with the question, not only of religion, but of imbalance of wealth and birth rate. So the ‘exchange’ might be forced. And will a several-century period of trouble be necessary before integration and reconciliation? I hope not.

    • english13 says:

      I hadn’t really thought of the problem as being between wealth and birth rates, between two continents, and so your comment gives me a new perspective to reflect upon. Personaly, whilst I understand we are dealing with complex issues, the central issue seems to me to be one of ‘post-colonialism’. Although the different cultures involved in the northern Irish question are close (I agree with you), and perhaps this aided ‘exchange’, in other cases (e.g. asian immigration) the cultures are not so close.
      However, it does appear that in Britain, asian communities integrated more readily than north african immigrants into France. Or maybe I just read the negative reports? But if this is so – why? Difference between British and French immigration policies? Difference between asian and north african communities?
      I finished my blog by making that it was simply an attempt to understand. I don’t profess to have answers, just questions and reflexions.
      Again, thanks for contributing a French voice and opinion.
      best wishes, Phil

      • I don’t have the answers, Phil, either. In France too, people from Asia integrate usually faster and better than Africans. Some people say they are more hard-working and more willing to integrate. But they are less numerous to arrive in France than Africans and perhaps easier to ‘digest’?

  6. english13 says:

    Sadly, the world has just watched the drama of a young man of north African origin (Algerian) commit mass-murder on the streets of France. Do we simply blame this on a young guy going off the rails and becoming a fanatic, without having good parental guidance to bring him up well and keep him in line – or can we be sociological and consider this as a reaction to non-integration into the French community? I guess this will all be debated – and rightly so. Answers are needed.

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