Like so many others, my mind has been on France these last days. And like many others, I feel a visceral connection to this often visited country where my husband and I first traveled on a sort of second honeymoon in the late 60s, filling our picnic basket with the delights of the charcuterie and the boulangerie, where we traveled with friends and our combined kids during a spacious summer in the 80s, where we spent a long sabbatical in the 90s, where my daughter and son each studied, researched, or worked in their twenties, and to which we have all returned quite a few times. Horrified by the brutal and shocking murders of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo and the shoppers at the kosher supermarket, I felt the vulnerability and fear of the French, of all of us in this new (renewed?) world of terror in which the murder of innocent people can be cold-bloodedly planned and executed in the name of religious belief, and we can be helpless to stop it. I was stirred to see the million people, led by heads of state linking arms, marching in the capital of liberté, egalité, fraternité—Enlightenment ideals so contributive to our own—to demonstrate those ideals, to resist fear and intimidation.
I thought back to those visits, extended or brief, which, for all the complexities of being a non-native speaker in a foreign land, for all the occasional tawdry or shabby or even disturbing underside of French glamour, fulfilled the romance I began with France at the time I first pasted a picture of La Tour Eiffel on my fourth grade book report cover. I thought of how aestheticized and ceremonious life seemed in France, and how it felt to me as if, in speaking the language (which passed before my mind’s eye as I spoke it, because I was just not that proficient!), I became part of this ceremony. As I wrote in an essay called “Speaking French”:
The words passing before my mind’s eye—even the simplest of them, like thé for tea—with their rakish accents, their smart little hats, had a cachet that went with the pastel curls of ribbon in the white boxes from la pâtisserie, the white frills on the rack of lamb in the butcher shop, …the ceremony that accompanied the daily events of life, particularly the taking of meals.
Observing the few cultured West Africans walking down the streets of Paris in the early 90s, it seemed to me that they (if not the poor black maids who worked in hotels) were fully part of that aestheticized and stylish Frenchness—walking French, talking French, dressing French—if a bit exotically so. It seemed to me they wanted to be French and felt at home, and were welcomed into France’s proudly republican, secular (and anti-clerical) culture, a culture that thinks of itself as a fraternité with egalité, as long as one accepts its values, aesthetics, ideals, in short, assimilates. No one ever breathed a word against such people in our long sabbatical year in the 90s.
But the same was not true in the case of Arab, Muslim immigrants, of which France now has, of course, the largest population in Europe, most often living in the enormous apartment blocks surrounding Paris and other French cities, which remind me of the often squalid “projects” of my native New York City. It didn’t take much for heated words about them to spill out on several occasions.
In accordance with republican and secular values, and historically centralizing tendencies, even in accordance with an idea of egalité, the French, famously, have attempted to legislate a certain unmarked sameness of appearance in the public schools, prohibiting the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols, including the Islamic hijab or head scarf for women, the Jewish kippa, and large Christian crosses. (See Wikipedia, “Islamic Scarf Controversy in France,” for an interesting summary.) Our college student daughter, who lived for some months in Marseille (soon after our extended stay in France ended in 1994) researching French attitudes towards Muslim immigrants there gave us our first insights into some of the complexities involved. Among other things, she discovered that young women newly arrived in France and enrolled in the public schools felt comforted and protected by the traditional head gear. French culture is certainly overtly eroticized (it was hard not to notice building high car ads sporting naked women) and, as my daughter pointed out, there’s a certain feeling that a woman should show off her allure, including her hair, rather than modestly protecting it and herself from sexual scrutiny.
Some feminist French Muslims as well as other French people think of the head scarf, as many Westerners do, as a symbol of female oppression and subservience to men, and therefore agree with the law banning it in schools. Others, both Muslim and not, feel that freedom of individual choice is violated by that ban. Some Muslims and others see the veil as a sign of belonging to a Muslim community; it may be a way of suggesting the unavailability of young women for marriage outside that community. The head scarf remains multivalent, polysemous, as Wikipedia’s article on the controversy makes intriguingly clear. One can see, in any case, how the ban would be disturbing or alienating to many, if not all Muslims. Yet, as the article indicates, even if a significant majority of French Muslims in a 2004 survey (50-60%) preferred that their wives or daughters had the choice to wear the hijab, a much greater majority (90%) claimed to “subscribe to culturally French principles such as the importance of the Republic and equal rights among men and women.”
As the novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, winner of the Prix Goncourt, says in today’s New York Times (“For French Muslims, a Moment of Truth”): “Most Muslims in France feel completely French, and want the majority of French society to accept them as such.” But alienation, poverty, the increasing stridency and power of France’s right wing and racist National Front, and, as Ben Jelloun says, the efforts of “Islamists … hard at work in prisons, industrial suburbs and neighborhood mosques, peddling a strong religious identity and hope for the future to disaffected youth” make a few of them vulnerable to extremism.
Nothing excuses the murder of innocents.
But, just maybe, mockery is not always the best choice in our interconnected world. Maybe, as Rabbi Michael Lerner suggests in a blog, “Mourning the Parisian ‘Humorists’ Yet Challenging the Hypocrisy of Western Media,” it is time for the media to consider “what it would mean to a French Muslim, living among Muslims who are economically marginalized and portrayed as nothing but terrorists, their religious garb banned in public, their religion demeaned, to encounter a humor magazine that ridiculed the one thing that gives them some sense of community and higher purpose, namely Mohammed and the religion he founded.”
Maybe, as my friend Robert Moore suggests in his blog, “Je Suis Charlie (99.9%),” “avoiding intentional insults to religious beliefs is similar to avoiding ethnic or racial slurs,” that is, “more a matter of common decency” than of “overly timid political correctness.” Maybe avoiding such does not so much impair one’s free speech, as make one feel “respectful.”
And maybe, as Tahar Ben Jalloun suggests, there is much work to be done in France’s schools, “where textbooks should be revised to reflect the diversity of French tradition and new courses offered on racism and on the history of religions.” Maybe it is time for proudly secular and centralized France to more explicitly acknowledge the multiplicity of the cultural and religious traditions of its citizens.
I offer the thought with deference because I much admire the French: their charm, their enjoyment of beauty—even their treatment of the animals they eat!—as well as their social system that confers education and health benefits on each citizen as his or her right. We lack much that they have, even if we are perhaps closer to an ideal of multiculturalism just because we have been and are a nation of immigrants. We must remember that we ourselves have defamed or maltreated many of those in the successive waves landing on our shores.