Strangers on a TrainA few years back I struck up a conversation with a French Muslim on a train from Paris to Strasbourg. To be honest, he struck up a conversation with me as I was too cold and tired to have made the effort on my own. For five hours we talked, mostly about higher education in France and America. Johnny (his nickname) drew a complicated diagram that explained the different tracks of study, depending upon discipline, as a French student worked her/his way up the ranks. I tried to explain American academia to him, but we kept stumbling over the same obstacle: every time I mentioned the baccalaureate, he thought I was talking about high school, not college (in many Latinic countries, the "Bac" is a high school degree.)
We also talked about our fields of study. He specialized in computer programming, so there was little that I could understand (especially in French.) However, we shared an interest in French history. Johnny knew little about Strasbourg and Alsace -- every weekend he took the train out to see his son. He admitted that while Paris was exciting, he felt a bit more at ease outside the neighborhood where he lived. What he liked was late Classical/early Medieval France. He had taken numerous trips up and down the western coast to see some of the earliest churches and pagan worship spaces. For someone in the science, he was well versed in this one area of French history and archeology.
As the train passed through Bar le Duc, he admitted to me that he rarely has conversations with non-Muslims that are so fulfilling. I laughed: our conversation had stretched my conversational abilities to the breaking point, and I made many grammatical mistakes because of fatigue. That was not what he meant. Few Frenchmen paid as much attention to what he had to say. He talked about how he felt about being a French Muslim, born in country but not taken seriously. Unable to talk directly to his experiences, I tried to talk about minority experiences in America. I knew I was not communicating directly to his concerns. I imagined his predicament in American terms.
As I equated things that made sense to me about integration and advancement, I hit a nerve. "More education!?" he said. I wasn't sure what had given him a shock. "Why should I have more education? I move on to the next level, studying more, because the degrees I have earned don't help me to get a job. I look forward only to more education." He had no faith that an employer would give him the chance to practice what he studied (he tried hard to find a job) so he continued to study.
This chance meeting was not unique. I've had it many times in France and Germany: a conversation with an enthusiastic Muslim or African who is surprised that someone will pay attention. Listening to them, I find that they are enthusiastic about their European homeland (adopted or natal.) They are culturally aware, exhibiting (what I consider) good social practices for their milieu. Yet they remain outsiders. I have also asked Frenchmen and Germans about Muslims and Africans: "Why are people who seem assimilated not accepted?" The question can turn a conversation on its end, turning transnational discourse into national defense.
The explanations that I hear through gritted teeth are nothing but cliches. "Immigrants" (which describes even the second generation born in country) are not assimilated. They retain backward traditions. They come just to earn money and send it home. They get brides from the mother country, locking them away and not doing anything to assimilate them. They don't learn the language, so they become rabble-rousers rather than hard workers. They are a problem for society.
The litany of complaints are familiar to me: Frenchmen used them to discredit the protests of Alsatians in the 1920s. They were used to discredit regionalist movements in Brittany and Provence. They were used to discredit traditional Catholics. They belong to a discourse of nationality and nationalization that shifts attention from discourse between national identity and ethnicity to the "other." Indeed, the most understanding Frenchmen said that it was not up to them to understand Alsatians, only for Alsatians to change. Race deepens the problem.
At least in Germany Muslims and Africans know that they are not accepted. The Turks, generations after being invited to work in the factories, are still not citizens, and they are subjected to an arduous process of naturalization. And there is an ongoing, albeit uncomfortable, discourse about how Germans view race. But the French constitution, which calls anyone born in the territory a citizen, obscures the problems of acceptance. Being taken seriously as a Frenchmen require more than a passport.
Despite knowing that non-Europeans were viewed with suspicion, I was arrogant to claim that I understood his frustration. Understanding how the "other" was "constructed" was not a substitute for their experiences and identifications. The rioters in the suburbs and cities are inarticulate youths who have not really tasted the frustration experienced by their older brother and sisters and their parents. As much as the "fires" must be put out, all segments of French society must turn to the population that it continually constructs as "the immigrants" to see it for what it is. They are not unassimilated, as the right would see them, or carriers of the Revolutionary tradition, as socialists have recently described them (do they really want to justify the Terror?). Hearing Villepin call for more education and more support to community groups to integrate young "immigrants," I know that Johnny is laughing.