It’s a little ridiculous how French cities are set up, especially here in the South of France since this is where most of the immigrants are. So you’ve got the centre-ville, which is basically the same idea as “downtown” in the states. This would be places like Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux, etc. Then, just outside of these centre-villes are little neighborhoods called banlieus. Some people say these are the “ghettos” of France, but that’s not always true. I asked my host mom and she said that some banlieus are actually quite rich and people who live there just do not want to live in the centre-ville, which is perfectly understandable. However, the banlieus basically represent the segregation in modern French society: one banlieu is for the rich, one banlieu is for the poor, one banlieu is for Arabs, one banlieu is for Africans, one banlieu is for Asians, etc.
People consistently wonder why there are so many complains about racism and segregation in modern society, especially in France. Laws like laïcité should solve these problems. For those who do not know what laïcité is, this is a very old 1905 French law that prohibits any public display of religious symbol. The law was originally intended to aim towards eliminating Catholic wealth, yet recent modifications have shown simply signs of Islamophobia. In 2003, the headscarf was banned, a mere scare after the 9/11 incident, which attacked a country that was nowhere near France. In 2011, the veil was banned, a response to violent riots on school grounds involving some Muslim girls.
This is my research. However, witnessing is a lot different than reading. When I first showed up to France, I saw so many headscarves. Arab women, mainly, were walking around the centre-ville with their heads covered in long scarves and their bodies robed in long, black dresses. So, naturally, I asked my professor, “Isn’t their law against this?” Maybe it was one of those laws that some scholars took too seriously because they haven’t actually researched in-depth enough to realize that this may be just a very old law that nobody follows. Kind of like, “You must wear shoes in Texas.”
Apparently, if one reads the laws very carefully, it says that as long as you do not cover your face, you are fine. This is to ensure “security,” but my question is from what? It seems as if the government just wanted to prevent Muslim women from wearing religious clothing, which seems to only have enhanced the desire to wear religious clothing. Never in my life have I seen so many people wearing long dresses and headscarves. If you get caught with a headscarf covering your face, a large cross on your chest, praying in public, or anything displaying religious symbol, you’re charged 150 euros.
Oh, that’s not even the best part my friends. Not only do you have to do that, but you are also required to take a course on French nationalism.
I know some of you kids are laughing back at the state, but I think this is part of the culture, here. Honestly, I wish I have lived here longer just so I can at least try to understand why this is not a ridiculous thought to residents here, especially the Muslims. Why would the Muslim people be okay with the government telling them how to live their individual, spirited life?
What I’ve found is that this is also a question of nationalism and loyalty. Laïcité promotes the idea of being “French” come before anything else, which is why it isolates religion from the public. It is an extreme form of secularism that has worked alright in the past century. However, there are too many doubts that it will work in the future. The new modifications to laïcité, like in 2003 and 2011, are almost undoubtedly forms of Islamophobia, which just makes the country look racist instead of secure.
And on January 7, 2015, the Charlie Hebdo shooting occurred in response to one of the satirical newspaper’s cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. This only caused more hatred aimed towards the Muslim population, when this really was just an act of violent extremism. In addition, it might be perceived as being unfair that the Muslim people, the group of individuals who are specifically told not to defend or express religion in public, are the ones being attacked by the press as “suicide bombers” and “terrorists.”
Since the 2003 and 2011 laws were emplaced right after a major threat to the government stability occurred, the question is what will happen now after Charlie Hebdo?
If anything, this inability to defend individual rights and beliefs in the public is only reinforcing segregation. Right now, I am staying near one of the Arab banlieus that are considered to be “dangerous” if you walk through. Because I didn’t know much about this city when I first arrived, I followed my host families’ directions and took the bus or the tram, which pass through these parts of town every day. This is the only time when I get to see all classes mixed together in one area because nobody wants to drive since it’s such a disaster here. Nobody talks to each other as they stand on the bus. Even though they’re not wearing a “headscarf” or “veil,” I can still tell which person is Muslim, which is almost half the tram population. They are always isolated from the rest, speaking in soft French, and avoiding eye contact with any white people.
To be honest, sometimes I want to ask what some people’s religion is. Are they seriously okay
with being told that they cannot express their religion in public? Because if this law existed in the States, there would be riots in the streets. Yet, this just seems to be a subject that nobody actually wants to talk about because it’s way too touchy.
In the school I work in, I know it is illegal to wear a headscarf or any religious clothing. Apparently, last year, some students were expelled from school for wearing just a long, black dress. The teacher I work with told me that it was “obvious” they were trying to anger the teachers after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, proving that it should be okay to wear religious clothing in public areas. Knowing this was a touchy subject, I did not press too hard on my impending questions. Yet, her responses seemed to be blaming the students because they knew the consequences and they had bad, meaningless intentions.
Well…what if their intentions were meaningful?
I didn’t ask that. I guess I’ve gotten use to the fact that people around here do not press questions that really would anger the other. There’s a difference between being direct and being too direct to the point where you cause the other person to become angry with you.
As most of you already know, Western countries are closing down their borders to these immigrants due to Syrian and Middle Eastern conflicts. When I first arrived, at the airport, they put me in a separate passport line for the United States, Canada, and the European Union, while African and Asian countries were put in a different line. Their line was much longer than ours, and a person could probably stand in that customs line for about two hours. I got pass customs in under 10 minutes. The customs officer literally looked at my passport, glanced up at me, and then let me through. No questions. Didn’t even check my bags.
I told some of my friends this. They said that France is racist. Well, it definitely seems that way. But I still fail to come up with an appropriate answer as to why. Maybe it’s a deeply ingrained thought or belief. Maybe Islamophobia has just always been there since the first wave of Arab immigrants in the 1960s. My host family, for sure, is not a big fan of the immigrants, complaining that they have to pay for the immigrants to live in a country that’s not even theirs. This is also the reason why not many French people like their president, Francois Hollande: he’s not enforcing any immigration policies, which is causing native French people to have to pay more in taxes.
So, economically, I can see some xenophobia happening. You should also know that “xenophobie,” the French word for xenophobia, was one of the first words I learned in French back in the States. I wondered why, but now I realize how much of the culture this concept takes up.
Which is sad. So sad.