In the last few months Paris has been the witness of some strange debates on national identity or again the Islamic outfit known as the burqa. It is quite a disappointing and sad French reality revealing itself at last and testifying of an obvious racism in the French society. The violence of some racist comments these last few days have been painful evidence for any French who loves the country he was born in. Saying this, some might ponder on the reason for my still living in the Hexagon. There are, however, some days like this when interesting initiatives are taken by a minority of people that make you forget the bad side of everything else. This is a bit like the situation France found itself in after World War II; according to the historians, just a minority of -1% of the French population had resisted against the Nazi regime, but after the war that minority became the French pride making everyone forget the other 90% who had been collaborating with Nazis or just passive.
On December 11th and 12th a colloquium was organized by a person I had never heard of: Esther Benbassa, a famous historian specialized in Jewish history. The meeting she organized with the help of the American embassy in France was a revolution in its genre in the Hexagon. It took place at Metro Luxembourg tube station in the prestigious premises of the École Normale Supérieure, 45 rue d’Ulm, 75005 in Paris. The public was composed of scholars; students, in brief of academics, all specialized in the issues of integration or ethnic minorities either in France or in the United States. The conference “Minorités visibles en politique” organized by Esther Benbassa and her association “Le pari(s) du vivre ensemble” was held in both languages; English and French. If no sound solution was found or suggested at the end as a remedy to the developing French racism and Islamophobia, yet, it was quite nice and comforting to see that a certain number of scholars and academics were openly blaming the French system of integration and condemning the ambient discriminatory atmosphere of the last few months.
Hardly had I seen before a platform where simple and clear condemnation of the French assimilation system in the name of the Republic was utterly pronounced and pointed out as entertaining a form of institutional racism. It seemed to me that all the thoughts and opinions that had once been denied any space of expression had now found an outlet in this very colloquium. For the scholar I am it was also interesting to compare the French panel to the Anglo-Saxon one. If the panelists who expressed themselves on the situation in the United States were all Americans reflecting diversity and multiculturalism, the French ones however, constituted a more homogeneous lot; all alike, all of the same white European origins. When the Americans gave the opportunity to the first concerned ones to speak about the integration of their community within the American society, the French still preferred to let white European individuals express themselves in the name of the different ethnic minorities -at least this is how it was felt by part of the public me included. Despite the good will of the initiative, some few errors were still to be noticed certainly due to the French way of dealing with such issues.
But let’s be honest, this event was again the first one of its kind and I think all those who attended it should be grateful to Esther Benbassa for organizing it. Besides the fact that lots of information on social issues, ethnic minorities and social cohesion were delivered, that was also an opportunity to meet interesting people in front of a delicious banquet and get their business cards for future collaborations by the way. This is one of the good sides of being in France at the moment. It gives you hope to see people concerned and alarmed the by path our country is taking. This feeling is even more pronounced in front of the presence and the help of American citizens coming once again here to re-establish the French values against our own absurdity.
Dr. Moustafa Traore
(PS: Thanks Esther Benbassa)