Since our last Cafe Citoyen discussion, I’m more confused than ever before about French culture.
Thanks to the Rugby World Cup, the spotlight has shone on the All Blacks over the last 6 weeks. Of course the haka, and by association, Maori culture have been the topic of many conversations too, and I’ve found myself having to explain the haka countless times (not that I’m complaining, I love to talk about my culture). But I’ve also found myself explaining that as I haven’t been taught how to do any haka, I’m not going to do it. I won’t mock Ka Mate by performing like a trained monkey because that would disrespect the integrity. And for me it just wouldn’t be right, tika. I thought the easiest way to explain this to French people is to say the haka is sacred. But even after explaining that it’s sacred, people continue to push for me to do it, as if i haven’t JUST explained the reason that I won’t.
This got me thinking, what, if anything, is sacred to the French? So at last week’s Cafe Citoyen I opened the disussion ‘est-ce qu’il reste des choses sacre dans la culture Francaise?’ (is there anything sacred left in French culture). While the conversation was hugely enlightening, and probably my favourite discussion to date, I left asking more questions about French culture.
There were about 40 people at this discussion and the large majority agreed that there is nothing sacred in French culture, except for the liberte d’expression (freedom of expression) which necessarily questions and mocks everything, including the most sacred. There was a lot of tooing and froing of how to define sacred, which to me is something highly important, to be left untouched, which if transgressed would have a consequence or punishment of some sort.
But it seems the French have a much more complciated view of what the word ‘sacred’ means. To them, sacred exists purely in the religious sense and denotes things that are divine, sacred and superior to the populace; it is contrary to the idea of the average Joe Bloggs. Several times throughout our discussion people made reference to the enlightenment and the search for reason as an antidote to that which was religious and dogmatic. They also referred to the revolution, although there was a dispute between whether the important date was 1789 (the date King Louis was imprisoned) or whether it was 1793 (the date he was actually killed), as putting an absolute end to everything that is ‘sacred’. This act gave Joe Bloggs the ability to make a name for himself, rather than having to bow down to the sacred and unquestionable divine right of the King – the foundation of the French Republic.
And while I appreciate and respect the foundation of the republic, (I am a big fan of direct or representative democracy myself), I am still left confuzzled. Just because you got rid of the King and his silly divine rights a couple of hundred years ago, surely doesn’t mean that you now have a ‘god given’ right to disrespect everything that has ever been held important to others? But it seems people were more caught up in defining what sacred means, than in giving me any indication of what might be sacred or highly important to the French as a culture.
The most satisfactory answer I received was that as a society there isn’t anything sacred, apart from the liberty of expression which necessarily mocks everything and anything, including the most sacred. So no, there isn’t anything sacred in French culture. As individuals, however, everyone will have something sacred, be it a religious value or what not; but as France is a laïque (secular) country, these most sacred values must be kept private, kept to oneself or shared only in their most intimate relationships.
Most people in our discussion tended to agree with this response. So I have to accept it as correct. But even if that might be the case, there are a couple of things I find difficult to accept. Though thanks to my cultural studies, I’m very aware of my own ethnocentricities and am trying to move past them.
Firstly, and I’m glad that someone else raised this issue, if those most sacred values are a no-go zone, it means that there are important parts of who we are as individuals that are kept hidden from the outside world. But this is how I personally connect with people, how I build relationships and I never had a problem with this back home. People weren’t afraid to be vulnerable with me and vice versa, and I feel incredibly humbled and grateful for that. But it’s fair to say that while I continue to build special relatioships in France, after two and half years I still don’t have many intimate relationships with French people. While it’s something I craved for some time, believing it to be a successful measure of my integration process, it feels more elusive than ever. After the discussion last week I’ve come to realise that I find it incredibly difficult to be vulnerable with people who can’t be vulnerable with me. I also have my own values and if they can’t be reciprocated, or at least respected, then I suppose it does make integration difficult (after introducing the discussion, someone asked what the haka was; before i explained, the facilitator slapped himself and stuck his tongue out making noises….. after i’d JUST explained that it was sacred, and not be to mocked!). Thankfully my desire to overcome obstacles is greater than my desire to give up, but it is demoralising to keep trying at something that is like banging your head on a brick wall.
The other question I’m left asking the world (literally), is ‘what is French culture?’. Through my cultural studies I’ve learnt that culture is defined as a whole lot of ‘shared’ things: values, norms, beliefs and traditions, all of which have rules to help guide us. If the rules are transgressed there is usually a consequence or punishment of some sort. This ensures that the integrity of any given value, norm or tradition and thus, culture, is protected. But if there is nothing sacred at a national level, if the integrity of everything is up for debate, and if it’s OK to scrutinise what your neighbour considers most sacred without any consequence, what is it that binds the French as a people? Indeed, someone suggested that the French culture itself is a myth; that it doesn’t exist at a national level and that what binds people are the local and regional values more than anything else.
After sharing these insights with someone, I was told not to analyse it so much. He reckoned that even as a born and bred French person, he barely knows what it is to be French. I won’t lie, part of me wants to take his advice. But when I came here, I arrived with the intent to integrate as much as possible. I have also become really aware of the vast distance between my values and those of the French, and I want to make sense of it (don’t get me started on fraternite, egalite and liberte, which provide a platform for the bourgois to get on their high horse, but which leaves the vulnerable high and dry – Kiwis display these values more readily than the French!). Besides, the French themselves are always claiming that migrants need to make more of an effort to integrate into their society and if that is true, I think it’s only fair to ask these questions and to have a bit more clarity on the answers.
So far what I’ve got is:
a) nothing is sacred;
b) French culture is a myth; and
c) local/regional cultures are most important to one’s identity.
So while I might have received answers to my question, I don’t feel satisfied that it matches the reality. I think there’s a need to dig deeper to answer these questions coz if there was really nothing sacred, or otherwise highly important, why would the French – as a nation – be so scared of migrants?
The mind boggles….
At least one thing has been made very clear – I can’t equate the haka to anything that exists in French culture.