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  • Writer's pictureIan McKenzie

Liberté d'être: Freedom & Identity in France

Juneteenth is a celebration--one of the liberation from bondage of those once enslaved in this country. By now, most of us are familiar with the reasons for this holiday, with the cruelties of the past, and the lingering oppression of the present... In the post-reconstruction United States, however, some African-American emigrants found themselves on the other side of the Atlantic to start anew: James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Nina Simone and the list goes on. Indeed, the "African-American Dream" has been, at times, to start over in France and often to great success. But was it always croissants and Tour Eiffel ? To what extent did immigrants experience racism, discrimination and otherness in the past? What did it mean to be "French" under the law and what are its implications for French citizens today?

France: A Refuge?

Where would I go [to escape]? Where would any black man go? -- James Baldwin, Meeting The Man: James Baldwin In Paris, 1970

Most of us have some familiarity with French affinity for the arts, and indeed, for many decades of the early half of the twentieth century, it was a refuge for Black American creatives: Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, just to name a few. Coming from their country of origin which proved to be a hostile place for them, they each found the French way of life in some way more attractive than what was available for them at home.

But was France a better option or even the best option? In a 1984 interview with the Paris Review, Baldwin says of his reasons for personal exile: "I was broke. I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York. [...] When I arrived in Paris in 1948 I didn't know a word of French. [...] It wasn't so much a matter of choosing France--it was a matter of getting out of America." For Baldwin, at least, the choice of France was a choice of life over death--of a chance to live and work in relative peace with his environment. Nonetheless, he had this to say about the matter of existing as a black man: "where would I go [to escape]? Where would any black man go?" (1970).

Obviously Baldwin's notion of France as a whole was quite neutral in comparison to his ideas on New York in the 1940s. Josephine Baker had great success professionally as an entertainer on the stages of Paris in the 1920s, but: where do black individuals, immigrants, and more broadly people of all minority status in France find themselves in relation to the whole today? This is an enormous question to which we won't find one answer--the responses are as limitless as the perspectives of every individual. We can, however, look to the historical precedent of different groups, and to the official capacity of minority groups in France.


The collection of demographic statistics pertaining to race, religion, ethnicity, etc. is illegal in France

One essential fact to understand about the French political environment is, in an official sense, the collection of demographic statistics pertaining to race, religion, ethnicity, etc is illegal in France. This may be shocking to an American sensibility. An American's first question would probably be: how can individual rights be guaranteed if your government doesn't know who you are? The French response to this might look something like: if you are French, you are French regardless of your ethnic or religious background. In other words: one's personal or "private" identity has no relation to one's "public" identity." This kind of universalism, sometimes known as blind justice, is the basic "Republican" ideal that began with the French revolution of 1789--all citizens of the new Republic are treated the same indiscriminately--or at least in theory.

Yes, at the time, the French ideal of a universal equality was a novel one, and the software has had a few updates (and bugs) since: from the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen of 1789 to the controversial "veil laws" of the past twenty-odd years, France has shed its skin more than a few times. But the question remains: in a country such as France, currently in its "Fifth" Republic, a former absolute monarchy and empire (and then monarchy again) within just the last two-hundred-or-so years, how would there be any cohesion of national identity?

Educational Reform

Nearly as quickly as the guillotines descended on the Ancien Régime, Ferry implemented his principles of public education--Free, Secular, Obligatory

To understand the question of one's "private" versus "public" life in France, we must first understand certain rights (and requirements) of French citizens. One such requirement dates back to the late nineteenth century, credited to a man named Jules Ferry. Almost one hundred years exactly since the French Revolution, the minister of public instruction and former mayor of Paris introduced his proposed laws of educational reform, to which point schools were still operating under many of the old traditions and oversight of the Catholic Church, predating the Revolution. Ferry, however, understanding that universal education is one of the most effective ways to unite a far-reaching territory both politically and economically, instituted his reforms with a swift pen. Nearly as quickly as the guillotines came down on the Ancien Régime, Ferry implemented his principles of public education. The three principles describing the institution of public education were then as they have remained to this day: Free, Secular, and Obligatory.

The theory behind such a reform was simple: the most egalitarian way to implement a required education is to make it at no cost, no longer limiting the barrier of entry to an economic choice for families with less disposable wealth, make it secular so that no student can be "indoctrinated" by another student's or teacher's personal beliefs (ie. those elements not endorsed by the State), and obligatory so that, barring all else, truancy is made a punishable offence. While ambitious, its alignment with the noble ideals of "liberty" or "freedom" and "equality" is clear. However, this method of cultivation of a "universal" French identity seemed to work less like tending a garden and more like clear-cutting a forest--a homogeneous result from violent efficiency.

Universal Identity And Pluralistic Society

Leading into the twentieth-century, its numerous wars, and eventual restructuring of the French overseas colonies scattered across the globe (today known as "DOM-TOM" or Départements/Territoires d'outre-mer, and some unofficial protectorates to this day in the African continent), France had already undergone major political upheaval in the struggle for unification. Let's not forget how recently in the "past" France had its colonies; Vietnam, then known as French Indochina, was released as a result of the Geneva Conference of 1954. Algeria, the closest in proximity and the most tightly held territory of colonial France, did not gain its independence until July 5, 1962. Governments and historians alike have characterized the French occupation of Algeria as genocide. Historian and professor of genocide studies at Yale, Ben Kiernan, writes in his 2007 book, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur, "by 1875, the French conquest was complete. The war had killed approximately 825,000 indigenous Algerians since 1830."

As a result of this over hundred-year occupation and eventual disintegration of the colonies, French society has become more pluralistic. Waves of immigrants and refugees from the former colonies arrived on French soil en masse. Given the French ideals of a "universal" French identity cultivated via its public education system, all immigrants whether they be from Algeria, Vietnam, or Portugal, were and are expected to conform to their new home. But to what degree are immigrants and their children held to the same standard as those whose ancestors arrived three generations or three millennia before? In the spirit of sameness as the French legal system would purport, there should be no difference whatsoever, afterall: "if you are French, you are French..." in theory.

Dreyfus was convicted on the evidence of handwriting identified as a “self-forgery,” and a single initial in a playful lover’s note. LEONARD DE SELVA/CORBIS

Yes, France is a pluralistic society, in many regards not so dissimilar to the United States; dating to the ancient gaulish tribes to the wars of religion (in which the protestants were expelled) to the Dreyfus Affair in which Dreyfus, a French military officer of Jewish descent was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison, on to present day, France has always been in conflict within its borders in a constant struggle for its identity.

Most recently making headlines is the newest interpretation of the "secularism" (known as la

laïcité in French) aspect of the public school system. Unfortunately, what was a non-issue for quite some time--the Jules Ferry Laws dating to the 1880s--began to arise among French politicians. Widely regarded as an islamophobic law, the French senate banned all "symboles ostentatoires [de religion]"--conspicuous religious symbols--from schools in 2004; no student or professor may wear such symbols. Many non-French organizations denounced it as a violation of religious freedom. In 2010, France doubled-down by expanding the ban of head coverings to include face coverings in all public places (*Dear France, Covid would like a word).

Described as "draconian" by some media outlets, a new 'anti-separatism' bill was passed as recently as July 2021 by which the French government would have stricter requirements on distribution of public funds to organizations (such as sports clubs) and greater power to dissolve any such organizations deemed in violation of the "principles of the Republic". Macron draws a line between "the choice to believe or not", but spoke clearly against what he terms islamisme radical, but such a broad sweeping law doesn't give confidence that such a distinction could be made in practice. Moreover, in the government's view, what distinguishes a "radical islamist" from a "muslim choosing their faith and following religious law"?

In a political climate growing evermore tense by the day, France obviously must do something to quell the violence that comes with extremism, violence within communities--particularly as it concerns women--and across its territory. However, is the stigmatization and the singling-out of a sector of the population--a practice which, in theory, is illegal within French borders--the most effective way to handle such social problems? Is the banning of veils in public spaces or the controlling of minors clothing in schools, practices which would affect exclusively on women, any less paternalistic and backwards than the very mentality the French government claims to be opposing?

No one can claim to have the answers to the questions posed here. Next to alarming rates of gun violence plaguing the U.S., it would be silly to think we know how better to solve the problems facing other places (even if we so often think just that). So what can be done?


Language belongs to no one and it belongs to everyone.

As an educator, it is my firm belief that in learning, speaking and teaching languages, we are vectors of change in the world. Such change is minute, but profound: by changing the way we think. When we engage in the process of language, we are entering into a loop, a literal conversation that began long before us and will last long after us. We sometimes feel so powerless over the ways of the world, over the violence and anxiety that seems to surround us. But in joining into a conversation, at whatever stage, we are contributing to that conversation--in fact, we are changing that conversation.

Language belongs to no one and it belongs to everyone. There are many institutions (*cough* Académie Française) and individuals who claim to have supreme authority over it, but the truth is: it belongs to everyone and no one. By learning a first, second or third language, we engage with the world in ways we never thought possible, we find ourselves reading stories and ideas unlike a time when we couldn't. Perhaps speaking multiple languages is the literacy of the future? I don't know. What I do know is: every thought or action, big and beautiful or dark and terrifying, first began with a conversation.

By Ian McKenzie:

Ian is a French teacher at Learn French Brooklyn with a passion for language, culture and pedagogy. He has studied and lived in Normandy, France and his students of all ages benefit from his range of teaching experiences at colleges and middle school. He enjoys the arts, phonology and hanging with his cat, Seymour.

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