Multiculturalism in France… or lack of……

I regularly attend the group ‘Cafe Citoyen’ (Citizens Cafe) which is run by a nationwide organisation by the name ‘La Nouvelle Arcadie’. Their purpose is to maintain, encourage, support and promote forums of debate, although not in the formal sense where you have the affirmative and opposing teams. Its much more informal than that and the point is not to perfect the skills of seasoned orators or debators but to engage the average Joe Bloggs with topical issues affecting our communities today. In other words, its where people like me, come together to discuss their concerns, hopes and dreams for our communities.

I get such a buzz going to these sessions and just love hearing other people’s perspectives on issues. It helps me to better understand France and French communities, as well as the perspectives of people as individuals. The people that attend Cafe Citoyen consistently challenge me to reflect and re-consider what I may take for granted about how we organise ourselves. The types of issues which affect New Zealand communities, indeed the norms, values, traditions, customs that are transmitted through New Zealand society, don’t necessarily equate to, or mean anything here in France and vice versa. So while I might understand an idea that someone expresses, it doesn’t mean I completely grasp the totality of it. For these reasons it’s always difficult to try and share my own thoughts, feelings or experiences, particularly as New Zealand is often described as a place of myth and legend by the French, who often can’t begin to imagine what daily life entails for us Kiwis.

But this does have its advantages since I am able to consider ideas from a completely different, perhaps fresh perspective. I’m also able to provide comparisons and make contributions that no-one else might have thought of before.

Today’s topic was based on ‘how we can improve our children’s education’ (in France).  A question that was raised several times was the degree to which parents, compared to teachers, are supposed to impart or transmit the values of society.  The thing is, when people refer to ideas such as values or morals of society, there seems to be an intrinsic assumption about what these values are. At the very least I know they include the concepts of liberte, egalite and fraternite (France’s motto of freedom, equality and brotherhood). But I can’t help but wonder what these values are assumed to be when you’re in a country full of diversity, and whether or not these values reflect the reality of life in France today. And why was nobody else raising this most obvious question? I mean, if we’re trying to figure out how to improve our children’s education, shouldn’t we clarify what values we’re talking about?

My understanding is that traditionally, France was a collection of villages with their own particular languages, customs, traditions and cultures.  When Napoleon came along, he decided it was much more efficient to create a unified France with a centralised system of administration based in Paris. And in order for France and its administration to function cohesively, they actively promoted this common French identity, while suppressing local identities and cultures. Local languages such as Occitan, Breton and Basque, for example, were banned.  While this sense of a unified France worked in the past, I wonder about the degree of influence it has today.

From my studies of international relations, concerns around culture and ethnicity are going to become more polemic as we battle issues of identity and place in our globalised world. In France I have already begun to see this happen. With respect to ‘les Francais, Francais’ (French people who descend from generations of French people), it is no secret that non-Parisian French, particulalry those from rural backgrounds, are fiercely proud of their local identities. Perhaps thats why 25% of the voting population voted for the right wing party, National Front (who promote xenophobic policies), to represent them in the European Parliament. I know of people whose local identities supercede their so called ‘French’ identity, whom feel quite uncomfortable with the use of the word French to describe them, and whom prefer to speak their local dialect instead. So do these values of society, do they reflect the France of Napoleon and Paris, the France of a Breton person (from Bretagne), or the France of an Occitan person (from the South West)?

Beyond ‘les Francais, Francais’, you have French people who descend from a whole world of different cultures, with each their own norms, values and traditions.  I’m vaguely aware, for instance, of the situation in the banlieues (suburbs) of Paris, where you have kids who are French in the sense that they were born in France, but who might be the descendants of North African or sub-saharan African parents or grandparents. And what about the kids who are French in the sense that they’re born and live in French territories like Tahiti, New Caledonia, Reunion, Guadeloupe, where they have a completely different way of life to ‘les Francais Francais’ of continental France. Do these values of society include, represent and respect all of these French children?

As someone of mixed ethnicity, cultures and values, I think its hugely important for France, it’s people and it’s administration, to recognise and appreciate just how diverse the French population is. Perhaps its time to ensure policies are in place to allow all French citizens, including those with differen’t cultural backgrounds, the tools to determine their success how they see fit, as opposed to through this idea of a stock standard French person (who i’m not even sure exists).  Because, if I’m to be frank, from what I’ve seen, heard and read, this stubborn insistance on a generic French culture is beginning to exclude large sectors of it’s own population! French people who were born in France, or in French territories but whose way of life is remarkably different to ‘les Francais Francais’.

So with respect to education, I think one of the most important ways you can improve the system is to recognise and respect the values of ALL French students.  I’m not saying there should be a complete overhaul of the curriculum, but surely it can’t be so rigid that there isn’t any room for common sense to prevail? I think its important to create platforms to discuss these differences. It is hugely important to provide people with tools to welcome the opportunities that stem from a culturally diverse society, rather than fearing them. This is the future of our globalised and interconnected world and without these tools, we will only see more and more misunderstandings and conflict. We, France and even New Zealand, need to ensure that rather than making people feel excluded from or by society, that their everyday experiences are given validation. If this were already happening, I don’t believe that France nor England for that matter, (which does a lot better at dealing with multiculturalism, but only so far as ethnic communities are given the tools to become successful ‘English’ people, as opposed to being given the tools to determine success according to their values), would have terrorists who turn against their own countries.

I didn’t get to discuss these ideas in depth as my French only allows me to communicate much more simplistic ideas, but this isn’t some niggling feeling that will go away. It’s something I already felt strongly about in New Zealand, not feeling that we were doing enough to combat the anti-racist sentiment that I know exist the length of the country, but which seems strongest in Auckland. In comparison, I think we do a much better job.  At the very least we have Te Puni Kokiri (essentially the ministry of Maori affairs), the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs and Ethnic Affairs, none of which exist in France.  In fact, France doesn’t even ask people to disclose their ethnicity on their census forms. So they don’t actually have any idea about the population of the various ethnic groups that exist within France! This isn’t very helpful with regards to ensuring that ethnic communities are provided the right support*.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  There are very serious and valid reasons why this is the case today.  It goes back to World War II.  France doesn’t like to talk much about its role in the 2nd World War. While we might hear stories about ‘la resistance’, and how great they were, the reality is they didn’t win the war alone. While they did play an integral part in bringing the war to the end, for the most part, France and its citizens collaborated with Nazi Germany. Half of France was colonised by Germany, the headquarters of which were in Paris. The other half, under the command of the puppet Vichy regime, were collaborating alongside the German’s.  In effect, French citizens across the country played a big part in sending their fellow countrymen, albeit, those of ethnic minorities, to their deaths. It is a massive shame that is still felt across the country today, and why its not talked about. So we must understand that there are very legimitate concerns underlining this hesitance to recognise ethnic/cultural diversity.

But while this might appear noble at first, I think it’s incredibly unjust and even damaging in todays world.

So I hope to have more opportunities to raise this topic in the future. Try and create some platform for debate. I have a vested interest of course, because I am a migrant to France. But as much as I may try my best to integrate into French society, my Pakeha (NZ European) and Maori cultures are integral to who I am as a person and how I conduct myself in everyday life. They provide me with the confidence and strength to be ‘me’. But I was also lucky to have grown up in a schooling environment which strove hard to represent and instill the values of all the cultures represented by our student body (way to go Cannons Creek Primary School!).  But my hypothetical children could go possibly go through the French education system, which I fear ignores and perhaps suppresses the wealth of diversity that exists across society. What does this do to a persons confidence or sense of self, when a whole part of their being is ignored or suppressed?

The results of this education can be seen all over France.  It’s not often that you’ll meet an ethnically diverse French person who is proud to talk about their non-French heritage or the diversity of their parents or grandparents. In fact, they’re often offended if you ask what their ethnic background is, because above all, they are French. I should clarify that my point is not to challenge how people identify themselves. But I am critical of the fact that people are not provided many opportunities to feel proud of their ethnic or culturally diverse make up.  Often in France, ethnically diverse French people espouse this bleu, blanc, rouge stuff without question. Just the other day I met a guy from Guadeloupe. I know for a fact that Guadeloupe has a completely different way of life to that of continental France. I know they have a completely different geography and terrain. I know they have a different history to that of continental France.  I know they have a completely different standard of living than that of continental France. I know they have a different ethnic make up to les Francais, Francais. All of these things, these everyday lived experiences are what create norms and cultures.  But when I tried to connect to this guy, as a minority from a colonised, island nation, on the other side of the world, he seemed clueless about the direction I was coming from.  He was trying his best to reassure me that Guadeloupe is just like France. Which for me, is just such a bizarre concept.  It isn’t France. How can it be?  I know that for administration purposes it is a French territory, but I mean…. really, it is NOT France. I still can’t quite articulate my feelings on this one, except to use the word colonised. Loads of ethnic French people talk like colonised people who aren’t aware of the fact they’ve even been colonised.

Personally, I feel that people should be given the opportunity to feel proud of their heritage and culture, irrespective of what nationality they are. I am a New Zealand citizen, proud of my Pakeha and Maori cultures.  Hell, I was given so many opportunitites to feel proud of ‘my’ Cook Island culture….. and I’m not even Cook Island!!! (I’m such a wannabe. My middle name, Mareta, comes from the island of Aitutaki; I grew up singing and dancing to Cook Island songs; One of my favourite songs, which reminds me of good times with my family, is ‘Roimata’, by Brother Love. I love Raro donuts, poke, raw fish and mayonaise – the name for cook island potatoe salad – and when I hear the ukulele and pake, I’m taken back to my childhood).  I’m not saying the curriculum should adapt to every single culture that exists within and across the French world, but I am saying that at the very least, teachers could adapt to their students needs (I had Pakeha teachers singing in Maori, for example). Intercultural competency is also a key skill that ought to be taught in schools, especially schools in such ethnically diverse societies. By doing this, schools provide their students with the skills they’ll need, to deal with diversity in appropriate ways. Like actually dealing with it instead of ignoring it.

Much more importantly, anyone who has studied the basics of sociology or psychology will know that validation is one of the most important things you can give to anyone. Exclusion, by contrast, is one of the most damaging. Validating each child’s everyday experiences by acknowledging their ethnic or cultural background and the values that are important to them, could go a long way to improving some aspects of the education system. At the very least, you will provide an opportunity for genuine self expression, as well as gain an insight into another way of life.  Isn’t that better than continuing this cookie cutter mould of the perfect French citizen?


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