France from the outside: Charlie Hebdo’s attack from an expat perspective

I didn’t think I’d have it in me to write something about Charlie Hebdo’s attack but my friend and visual artist 2Fik’s essay (in French) compelled me to dust off my blog. This post is an essay which only reflects my opinion, but I hope it will resonate with other expats, wherever they are and whatever their ethnicity, confession (or lack of).

So, why am I writing? 

I don’t personally know any of the victims, and haven’t read Charlie Hebdo in years, but this small, radical newspaper is considered a french media icon that stands for what the French love the most about the idea they entertain about themselves. You must understand that a pillar of French culture rests on this debatable idea that the people took down their king and brought the final, triumphant solution to humanity’s problem with reviving the Greek ideal of the République. We grew up with texts books depicting the lower classes triumphing over monarchy and bringing democracy, but the truth is that political progress in France has rarely happened without coups, terror or dictatorships, the last one being Charles de Gaulle’s coup in 1958. I believe this is why we hold so many demos, and why strikes are considered an inherent and essential right. It provides the French with the comforting idea that one can catalyse change through force and great moments.

liberte_LHReading Charlie Hebdo provides teenagers and free thinkers the exciting sensation to be free from the mold of today’s much more conservative society. You’d be that cool (or immature) guy or girl in the bus who was in the know and wasn’t giving into mainstream bullshit. While it has a relatively small circulation and regularly gets into financial trouble, Charlie Hebdo is perceived as one of the rare remnants of France’s revolutionary streak, long gone in practice but culturally celebrated as a past, yet mainly impotent force. But its strength resides in these crude drawings which successfully tap into the population’s collective sentiment by taking brave (and sometimes offensive) stances against the ridiculous, be it political, religious or social.

What’s so special about me anyway?

I identify myself as what some call a Third culture kid. My mother is British and my father has mixed background of Ukrainian jewish and Greek but born and culturally raised for the most part in France, with some stint as an army brat in Senegal and Morocco. My Ukrainian and Greek great grand parents integrated in French society and adopted its cultural practices of leaving religion and culture at home, blending in easily probably due to their skin color.

My parents moved 17 times, living in the States, France, Holland and Canada, but always coming back to France as their home base. Carefree baby boomers, they enjoyed the opportunities of that economic climate, and were able to move back and forth whenever homesickness struck. Me and my siblings have navigated these changes during our formative years, every move further shaping our identities as cultural misfits. As we progressed, we either looked to branch out or to fit in to somewhere, each in our own very different ways. Yet today, in our 30s and 40s, we’re still left sitting on both sides of the fence, between where we leave and the different parts and histories of where we come from. This is something we regularly dwell on and impacts where we decide to live, but also who we fell in love with and even how we work.

On my end, I spent 10 years in France, the country where I was born, but into which I could never really fit in. Despite my French last name and my caucasian appearance, I increasingly felt like a stranger and came to despise what I perceived at the time as a self centred, arrogant culture that couldn’t seem to make room for otherness, differences. In my years in France, I grew up next door to a family of Algerian immigration, was baby sat by the older siblings. 5 great kids, all talented and good at school. Despite coming from a middle class suburban community, all of them had limited professional opportunities in an already grim economy. While I’ve never heard them complain, it has been plain to see from their experience, along with others I spoke too, that France has not much room for even fully integrated North African French citizens.

While France is great at debating and protesting, I saw it as lacking the intention, let alone the means, to act on the change it claimed to seek. When I turned 18, I took off and started a new life in Montreal, a city which I considered a happy compromise between what American calls the latin lifestyle and the practicality and reasonableness inherited from the UK. Mind you, I’m not the only one leaving France – immigration to Montreal has more than doubled over the last decade, and London is now the 6th biggest French city. Most of this immigration is made of middle classe Caucasian French with the means to do so. Here I get to enjoy an easy going, albeit slightly bland life in a country where differences are celebrated in a timid YET respectful fashion. I have to admit today that I took the easy way out.

What’s all this got to do with Charlie Hebdo? 

Charlie Hebdo’s shooting is not an isolated event – there is a whole landscape of facts that sadly make up a perfect storm. As I grow older and now trying to reconcile my irrational yet increasing longingness to move back, I’ve tried here to summarize both my ambivalence and provide the context which I believe leads up to what France is experiencing today.

In 2005, when the riots exploded in France, my sadness quickly led to anger. I felt these riots showed how much French system had let down an entire generation of immigration and as a result had created a subculture of outcasts breeding violence and exclusion. My intercultural and poli sci studies fed my opinion of the French system, deepened my conviction of this illusion of the perfect République.

Suddenly I shifted from this happy Canadian identity to angry French expat. I reconnected temporarily with a country I had try to forget because it rejected me first. I could not understand how France could not take essential steps to make systemic changes. While candlelight vigiles and demonstrations are essential, why didn’t they lead to political reforms ? What did Matignon and L’Elysée do? Why aren’t people questioning how French society treats the “other” and how religions fit in? How long will they sustain this illusion that religion and the otherness can be confined to the home and that it’s only a matter of time before everybody fits into to this seemingly liberating box the République is supposed to shape?

With each terrorist attack, be it on religious communities, journalists or from radical islamists, the expat in me shuddered and shook her head, and I felt comforted in my choice to live an open, pluralistic society. Of course, Canada is not perfect and Quebec has its own lot of racism and limitations, but if a train wreck were to happen, you wouldn’t see other passengers looting the victims and throwing rocks at the ambulances.

Mrap_discriminations To me these incidents are indicative of deeply troubled society, and I’m still angry at the predominantly white, “1%” style political elite who continue to treat the increasing list of tragedies as isolated events from deranged individuals who just can’t fit in. Sarkozy’s awkward attempt to recognize France’s Muslim community furthered entrenched the French intelligentsia into a belief that social questions should not be looked at through ethnic or cultural lenses. Meanwhile, in day to day life, legions of non-caucasian French are systematically discriminated when job or apartment hunting.

While France has a strong North african community with a relatively well integrated majority, the denial of a minority in need of concrete, day to day, practical integration leads to staggering numbers of torched cars and violent sexual crimes. France is quick to judge Americans for their imprisonment system, but there are legions of rightfully so frustrated young north african men who ended on the wrong side of the tracks and in deplorable conditions (article in French) – some estimate that 60-70% of inmates are French North African. It is then sadly unsurprising  that these conditions make a perfect breeding ground for radicalizing these youths. If you add to that France’s general perception as religion being a temporary err in human civilization, it is only too easy and comforting for these outcasts to embrace radical expressions and perversions of religions.

Feeling the call back to “home”: hiraeth

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 1.58.19 PMThis being said, each sad event brings me a little closer to France. As years go by I attempt to reconcile these contradicting feelings, and within the French community in Montreal I believe there is a similar sentiment. My French fellow expats are now also on both sides of the fence, and I believe there is an increasing amount of compatriots in this situation, seeing their home country from the outside struggling economically, politically, socially. Beyond the immediate horror of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I believe that this event compels the French in us to look back at our country. While distance makes for fonder memories than what made us leave, but these clash with the violence and despair that come with these events.

Not long ago, a friend posted something about “hiraeth” – this Welsh word expresses “the homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was.” Today, as the dramatic events of Charlie Hebdo continue to unfold, as hostages wait anxiously and France is holding its breath, some expats must be experiencing that same hiraeth, trying to balance the bittersweet longingness for a country which we wouldn’t know how to come back to.