The theme of my work is the migration (a general term that describes any transfer of populations) of various ethnic minorities into France, the problems they face with integration (the action of incorporating a racial or religious group into a community ), and their reception by the local community.
To examine this issue, I have taken an interview with my uncle, Brooks Beaulaurier (hereinafter referred to as “informer”), from my patrilineage. Born in 1978, and a Parisian journalist for some twenty years, he was a firsthand witness to the process of migration that is spoken about so often now in regard to France and its inner riots. Now, a recent US immigrant of two years, he is able to share his experience. The informer kindly agreed to provide some information about his perceptions of the foreigners in the French community.
According to the MPI data hub, almost half of the total amount of immigrants was Northern African (MPI Database, 1999). Thus, I asked the informer about which ethnic minorities were the most noticeable to him. His reply follows:
It greatly depends on what you mean by “noticeable”. The people, as back in the nineties, and even more so now, are far more afraid of the tightly-knit Muslim and Arabian communities. But… the Blacks – not derogatory term, just generally – are everywhere. They’re on the streets, in the services sector, and they seem to like it there. It feels like the Blacks are becoming the cockneys of Paris. The Muslims interact some with the outside world. The Blacks don’t seem to: even in public schools, from what I’ve heard, they stick to themselves. I think that’s where the danger lies.
The reply, somewhat unexpected, raised a whole host of questions. Interestingly enough, the prevailing cultural situation is often judged to be the opposite: the African immigrants are not perceived to be of one culture, or even of a similar culture with the Maghreb, and, on the whole, are treated more favorably (Wallace, Fathali, Sorin and Sorin, 1990 p. 410).
When I asked whether he knew what part of Africa these immigrants (from immigration: coming into a new country as a permanent resident) hailed from, he replied that they come from Maghreb, like most French-Africans. My next question was whether he knew that the majority of the Arab immigrant population also come from this region and are, thus, probably the purporters of the same culture, or, at least, have had much more experience in interaction with Africans than with Frenchmen, was met by disbelief – not towards their origin, but towards possible subsequent behavior the minority groups could display. Beaulaurier said:
From my experience of these people – Arab or African, it doesn’t matter – they keep to themselves and their local community. I have seen children’s companies of all races playing together, though, and some which excluded other races completely. I have not seen a children’s group unite against another on principle of color – and they would if they were more used to it, wouldn’t they? Teenagers could be another story, though, especially with this recent wave of racism, I wouldn’t be surprised. (Brooks Beaulaurier, personal communication, May 7th, 2008).
As a counterexample, he asks me to explain – how come if these people are so homogeneous, then the French Council for Muslim religion affairs is said to be such a failure? And cites the Yahoo news site, an article by Emma Charlton exposing that the Council is slowly falling to internal power struggles (2008). And then explains his take on the subject.
See, this may be what saves us, if it really is beyond this council and in the community. Divide and conquer is a good strategy for a multicultural country that tries to keep on being multicultural, when faced with a united front. As my editor used to say, “When we work together, you and I, it’s a democracy. You can say what you want. But I get the final say.” There is no reason for France to change its policy: for ages, those who come here must become French. If they do not – it is conquest from within. (Brooks Beaulaurier, personal communication, May 7th, 2008).
This is a thought held up in part by the mass media, as we will see further on. Though the informer is of a different opinion on the media stereotyping the minorities:
You mustn’t forget that mass-media doesn’t produce stereotypes – or, at least, that is what we take great care not to do. We give people issues to talk about, and it is they who are the interpreters. Then something happens, and we ask people on their opinions, and they react knowing what we told them before – and so we retell those new opinions, and it’s basically a cycle.
If any stereotyping is done trough the media, it is the people giving labels to themselves. Still, the minorities do have it more difficultly: they are often unable to speak up for themselves, though right now the situation is changing, and soon they will be able to interact with the community at large through us, as well – if they want to. (Brooks Beaulaurier, personal communication, May 7th, 2008).
It is interesting to note that the French minorities can hardly be redefined culturally through the media: a moment later, Beaulaurier admits that both the Muslim diaspora and the African diaspora generally watch news in their own language rather than French news. In fact, in can probably safely be hypothesized that they are more influenced by the news produced in Maghreb than by French news.
Some recent research (Hargreaves, 1999), however, shows that this matter is not as simple as it looks at first glance. It would seem there is a whole wave of Maghrebi filmmakers, mostly second-generation immigrants, who are attempting to make films to allow their cultures to speak for themselves, to show controversial issues from a different point of view. This phenomenon dates as early as 1985, with Mehdi Charef’s film “Le The au harem d’Archimede”.
It is interesting that this movie wave, however, has come under great internal criticism by other second-wave immigrants, due to the fact that the movies were not “internal enough”. He and other producers are regularly blamed for “looking through the Big Brother’s eyes”. Indeed, it is hard to doubt that the whole discourse of mass-media and cinematic influence has made it into the Maghreb communities – which means they are not so impenetrable as they seem from the outside, and the process of cultural mingling is well underway.
The attitudes of the French themselves are also controversial. A movie called “The French Democracy” (Chan, 2005) gained some controversial popularity both among the French and among the English-speaking world. It displays quite a typical story of three French-black people afraid and discriminated against, of colored people unable to find jobs, of fear of the authorities which results from these factors, and of deaths, coming from that fear. If two and a half years ago, when the movie was barely released, it seemed far less probable that the conflict would come to using serious force, these days, when gunfire has been a repeated incident, nobody doubts it much anymore.
One of the most tense sides of the problem is the Jewish-Muslim conflict. There has been a wave of Jewish emigration from the country, and it does create worry even for the regular French. As my informer says:
I don’t want to fall into stereotyping. Some of my best co-workers were Jewish. A few of the worst were Jewish, as well. The Muslim journalists are generally too busy with their local issues to be any good in the wider arenas, though. To see what they’re like, the situation will have to calm down a bit. For now, they’re representing their community, but they cannot do that forever, if they want to be journalists.
I’m just waiting for the better of their kind to come forward: there has yet to be a truly great Muslim journalist. The Jews knew how to handle themselves in Western society, it wouldn’t be well to see them go. They never imposed their religion on anyone, which is definitely an additional plus. (Brooks Beaulaurier, personal communication, May 7th, 2008).
Religion is one of the more tense factors in the life of France, as well. Here the position of the informer seems to be typical:
There is a lot to be uncomfortable over with Islam. I don’t know much about it – I’m Catholic, myself, as you well know – but the more traditional factions sound all right, despite some of the cultural craziness. I guess we’re no less crazy, and neither are the immigrants from Western and Eastern Europe. Some of their women aren’t allowed to wear pants, and Muslims have to wear hijab: this isn’t the problem. It’s just custom. It’s the extremists who worry me, like all of the others. It’s ok when people live according to their religion. It’s not ok when people start killing for it – and they already have, some of them. (Brooks Beaulaurier, personal communication, May 7th, 2008).
The Catholics, interestingly enough, are one of the groups that come into regular contact with Muslims – the Muslims themselves prefer to send children to Catholic schools to both, prevent violence and trust them in a non-secular environment, if not a Muslim one, according to Roy (Roy, 2004).
The question that consequently arises: should there be preventive measures of any kind, and how far should they go? This is a difficult question, well-addressed, however, by a collective study by Wallace E. Lambert, Fathali M. Moghaddam, Jean Sorin and Simone Sorin. In their 1990 study of the typical French town, they found that local opinion does a fair job of regulating French reactions to the recent events. Maghreb Arabs were most disliked compared to both the French themselves and to other immigrants.
They are seen as less hard-working, more aggressive, and, on the whole, more dangerous. The French display a remarkable degree of tolerance towards other immigrants, and the Asians, as hard-working and peaceful, are relatively welcomed. The Muslims are not, and, though the French reaction does follow logically from the recent events, they are thus forced to conform to what sets them apart in the first place, in an attempt to keep their own identity. It is a vicious circle, one that leads to mutual mistrust and danger.
Why are these immigrants associated with danger? In the words of the informer:
They aren’t integrating well. I know that this is, in part, our fault – the bad housing, the bad conditions, the discrimination – and yet it is them who have come here. They should adapt, not us. You can’t come to another country and establish your own rules, or else you will get what you can – and live, shunned, in a closed community, mistrusted. This is a lesson the Jews have been learning for years, and it’s a shame the Muslims are repeating it quite so thoroughly. (Brooks Beaulaurier, personal communication, May 7th, 2008).
This seems to be the general attitude towards immigrants of all kinds: live and let live.
On the whole, there is a great mistrust towards Maghreb immigrants, which is probably created by the fact that the local communities are very much locked into themselves. They are hardly influenced by the local mass-media, nor do they interact with multi-ethnic peer groups much. Indeed, what they do is keep to themselves, separated by the language barrier and the cultural barrier.
However, these barriers are slowly but steadily breaking down, as demonstrated by the influence of local notions of cinema on immigrant film-making, and the changing attitudes to traditional customs, which are slowly becoming more both looser and more accepted by the French community. The other immigrants are relatively well-integrated, and are slowly, but rather steadily, becoming members of the local community. Bilingualism, understood as “the use of two or more languages in places of work or education and the treatment of each language as legitimate” (Wallace et al., 1990) is supported among the French, and, until the newcomers attempt to impose their culture on the local population, are treated with respect.
It can thus be hoped that the riots and civil disturbances are just a natural part of living in a melting pot, and that sooner than later, real cultural pluralism, in the meaning of “mutual respect between the various groups in a society for one another’s cultures, allowing minorities to express their own culture without experiencing prejudice or hostility,” can really be experienced. For now, still, the people are worried – and it is hard to say that they haven’t a reason. We can only hope that the period of transition will not take too great a toll on the dialog of two great civilizations.
- Chan, A.(2005) The French Democracy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stu31sz5ivk
- Charlton, E. Islam in Europe: Power wars spell dead-end for French Muslim council Retrieved 20th of May from:
- Garriga, N. (November 28, 2007 ) Gunfire joins riot violence in France. The Associated Press
- Hargreaves, Alec G. (Summer, 1999). Boys in the Mud: Maghrebi Filmmakers in France Middle East. Report, No. 211, Trafficking and Transiting: New Perspectives on Labor Migration, pp. 34-35
- Moore, M. (Tuesday, April 29, 2008) In France, Prisons Filled With Muslims. Washington Post Foreign Service Page A01
- Roy, O. (2004) Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. Hurst & Co, 349 p.
- Wallace E. Lambert, Fathali M. Moghaddam, Jean Sorin and Simone Sorin (1990, September) Assimilation vs. Multiculturalism: Views from a Community in France. Sociological Forum, Vol. 5, No. 3 , pp. 387-411
- Stock of foreign population by country of nationality as a percentage of total foreign population, various years, 1982 to 1999. MPI Database. Retrieved 20th of May from: http://www.migrationinformation.org/datahub/countrydata/data.cfm
 WordNet 3.0 Princeton University, 2006.