‘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.
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:
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’.
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:
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’, thus, is 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.
Writing this blog is simply a personal attempt to understand.