Where do you come from? Not Paris, anyway

Europe in 2017: where an actual, literal fascist wins around 35% of the vote in a presidential election, and this is a good thing. It’s hard to feel completely overjoyed about le Pen’s defeat. The fact the Front National can get as far as they did is worrying – they, and the people who were convinced to vote for them, are not going to slink back into the shadows just like that. Still, I’m not going to be leftier-than-thou and say “well Macron is no different you know” – he is, and it’s an unambiguously Good Thing he won and not her. Of course he’s not perfect, but guys – she is literally a fascist.

Anyway, the reason I’m writing this is not to provide incisive political analysis (as will by now be clear), but because of something personal that has kept coming to my mind during the French election cycle. In 2009-10 I taught English in several different primary schools in a couple of small towns on the outskirts of Paris. I was working with kids aged between 5 and 11, and like most kids between those ages, they were bright, playful, desperate to learn, funny, inquisitive, cheeky, rude, and occasionally little bastards who wouldn’t do as they were told.

Whatever they thought of me, the kids all loved learning English. While some of them struggled to say “what’s your name?” – or, “woss joo nem?” – they all were so keen to try. I very rarely got the sense this was just something they had to learn because they were in school – they all really wanted to learn. No doubt partly they wanted to learn English because they liked American films and music – I was regularly asked things like “qu’est-ce que ça veut dire, ‘Black Eyed Peas’?” or “c’est quoi, ‘Fifty Cent’?” (Or on one occasion, “qu’est-ce que ça veut dire ‘Fuck you’?” When I asked where she’d heard this phrase, I was told “la nouvelle chanson de Lily Allen! Of course!”)

But the children I taught also wanted to talk about themselves in an international context. I was generally working in poor areas; some of these kids had never visited Paris, let alone anywhere further away. But they were so excited to learn there were other countries that spoke English, or French, and find out where they were. It was amazing for me as a teacher to see six-year-olds excited to find out where Senegal, or Nigeria, or Jamaica were on a world map. One of my proudest moments was teaching a Congolese five-year-old (called Léopold!) how to say ‘Democratic Republic of Congo’, and him understanding why that was different from ‘Republic of Congo’. He was so excited to tell me and the rest of his class that was where he came from.

And that’s why this is why this time keeps coming to my mind as I hear about le Pen. These kids were international citizens of the future, maybe, but they definitely weren’t French. The minority of kids I taught were from a white Catholic metropolitan French background; most of them had family from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, the DRC or Côte d’Ivoire. And as far as they were concerned, those countries were home, even if they’d never been there. Teaching basic English, one of the first questions I asked the children was “where are you from?” They would all answer first with ‘Vitry’, the town they lived in; then, if I pressed them, with ‘Tunisia’, Côte d’Ivoire’ or wherever. When I asked if they were from France, some kids conceded maybe they were French too, but that’s definitely not the first country they’d say. Some of them wouldn’t say they were French at all. (There was absolutely no question of any of them saying they were ‘from’ Paris – they were incredibly embarrassed at me even suggesting it.) They were so proud of their backgrounds, too – lots of kids came to school with hoodies covered in the Tunisian flag, or Moroccan flag baseball hats.

I realised that now, the youngest of these kids I taught would be teenagers; the eldest are now able to vote. And they could have been growing up in Marine le Pen’s France. A France they didn’t feel they belonged to to begin with; a France that now, in their teenage years, told them they were right not to feel they belonged. Because they don’t. As their sense of politics and wider society takes shape, as their hormones play dirty tricks on their brains and their bodies, as they prepare for the school exams that will dictate their job opportunities, these are the kids who are being given a clear message that this is not their country. They may have been born here, but it’ll never be theirs.

It was already clear when I taught these kids that some of them were going to be in real trouble when they got a bit older. Without going into detail, a few of them already were in trouble. And how is rising xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia helping? If a country rejects a big section of its population – if it sends that group the message that they’re ‘the enemy within’ – well, some of them are going to take the message to heart and believe it really is a fight between Us and Them. Islamist violence has as much to do with young angry frustrated men as it does with deeply-felt religious belief. (It’s not so different from white nationalism in that way.)

Le Pen’s success, such as it is, is in one sense the tip of the iceberg. Things would have been a lot worse under her, I’m sure. But things aren’t great as they are. Look at the heated ‘debate’ in much of the French media about so-called burkinis, for God’s sake. How – how – is a debate about what women wear at the beach considered a matter of national importance? Could Islamophobia, or sexism, be any more obvious?* What message does this give to children who feel ‘different’ and not ‘really’ French to begin with?

* Christine Delphy is good on the links between Islamophobia and sexism, particularly in a French context.

I’m not saying my little anecdote sums up the state of France or anything. That’s kind of the point – I’m saying I don’t know. I lived in France a good while ago now and I have no idea what any of the children I’m talking about are doing now. But I think the way they described themselves says something about national identity – particularly French national identity – and the way the national conversation about ‘identity’ is developing is concerning. The internationalism of those kids, at least – the fact they were so excited to learn other languages, and learn about the whole world – gives me some hope at least. I can’t be glib and say “the children are the future!” because, well, some of them are headed for a really shitty future. Some of them won’t be, though.

Basically guys, just in case you need reminding – don’t be racist. Ne soyez pas raciste.


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