In the wake of the horrendous Nice attack, many theories abound as to why France, historical champion of democracy and liberty, has become the epicenter of the clash of civilizations.
After much thought, I’ve decided that sharing my personal experiences as a Canadian Jew living in France is the best way to broach this. I don’t pretend to demystify the Hexagon’s many complexities, but my impressions may provide a glimpse of what is transpiring there today.
It’s worth noting that I’ve lived on several continents. Nowhere were the cultural disparities more subtle and vast for me as a Canadian than in France. Israel was wild, but very Jewish. Bolivia was otherworldly, as I expected. France had the veneer — and even the language — of sameness, but was foreign in so many ways. What’s more, most of these differences manifested themselves in the fact that I was Jewish.
I grew up in Quebec while it was undergoing a struggle for national liberation. Aside from the fact that Jews were not embraced into this movement (the feeling was mutual), Quebec was diverse and accepting, encapsulating the Canadian value of multiculturalism. I never had to hide my Jewishness; in fact, I was encouraged to flaunt it throughout my childhood and into my university years.
In 1999-2000, I lived in France as a foreign exchange student at the Université March Bloch in Strasbourg. Even though I spoke fluent French, I was oblivious to both the explicit and unspoken rules of being a minority in France. For local Jews, this often meant staying under the radar.
One day at the Université, I was giving an oral presentation about interwar migration (in French) to my history class. I was wearing a Magen David around my neck. This is something that would have been natural in Canada. During my lecture, I mentioned the influx of Jewish migrants to France between the wars. “Just because your grandparents were treated like dogs, it doesn’t mean that you have to dwell on it in your presentation,” the teacher said to me, in front of the whole class.
Besides being hurtful and humiliating, Monsieur Grandhomme’s comments (yes, his name actually means “big man”) were telling me in practice that I, and as an extension, Jews, were different, not part of the official narrative. I also believe he was punishing me for brandishing my Jewishness. That day, Monsieur Grandhomme taught me that wearing a Magen David in France was not a right, but an instigation.
Needless to say, such an incident would have raised the ire of the campus Hillel back in Canada and maybe have even made headlines. On my home turf, I would have felt comfortable calling him out. My fellow students in Strasbourg, for their part, expressed faint sympathy on their faces, but no one spoke out. Little did I know that it was the Jewish students themselves who were leading this conspiracy of silence.
I discovered that a few weeks later when I attended a panel discussion on inter-religious relations in France, organized by the student union — on the second chag of Passover. There were several representatives of Christianity, an imam, and no rabbi. This was in Strasbourg, a city with a historic and sizable Jewish community. When I asked the organizers why they couldn’t have rescheduled to recruit a more balanced panel, the (Jewish) organizers dismissed my question, telling me that they were French before they were Jewish, and it was not “an issue.” A discussion on religion, in other words, must be carried out strictly within the confines of secularism, and not all religions need be involved.
This “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule was not limited to the university. My cousin, a successful businessman from a nearby city, told me that in his professional circles, “of course, no one knows that I’m Jewish.” He said it matter-of-factly, as if stating the obvious.
Other minorities were not spared this treatment. I heard and overheard racist slurs several times, mostly against Arabs. Once, a French friend told me she had to keep her Moroccan boyfriend a secret from her parents. He was the third generation in France. Most of our parents consider Moroccans thieves, she told me.
As I left France, my feeling was that as a Jew I didn’t count.
It’s true that my feelings can be chalked up to cultural codes that I didn’t understand as a foreigner. But it’s not all that. There is something obliging about French secularism, nationalism, and patriotism that leaves no room for deviation. Jews had to consider themselves French first — and in my experience, they imposed this on themselves. While I lived there, French was still a narrow definition. The decrees that came after — forbidding the hijab and other outward symbols of religion in public — only exacerbated the situation.
France has potential to become a model of multiculturalism. As it becomes an immigrant country and deals with pressing existential threats, it has no choice.
Needless to say, I don’t blame France for the calamitous events that have befallen it, but I do see that its current problems stem from an inability to widen its mechanism of self-identity.
France is on the brink of a momentous change, and the country can take a number of different courses for better or worse.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, I hope the French will learn to widen their definition of who belongs and who doesn’t. It won’t solve all of France’s problems, but it’s a start.