In search of French identity

February 2, 2015

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that shocked France and the whole world, the French government, the media, educators launched a debate on a number of key principles of the French Republic among which, secularism (laïcité) a principle enshrined in French law since 1905.   I think we, French citizens, should do our utmost to preserve secularism (separating Religion and Government) and make sure that each one of us can freely practice their religion, or not.  Moreover, those terrible events have shown that not only the freedom of expression had been called into question but also that French identity is at stake.  As a land of immigration, France is a country where people of diverse origins were supposed to coexist peacefully.  But at the same time, France has a very complex history with its former colonies in Africa. 

The economic crises of the last 25 years have actually paved the way for xenophobia, and the Front National (far right) thrives on a discourse that chastizes immigrants for taking advantage of social benefits and, their offspring for their so-called lack of patriotism.  I think education is essential to foster acceptance and understanding. 

Besides, we need to look into the consistent ghettoization of the working poor, of people of Arabic or African descent in order to solve this problem through education and equal opportunities.  Why are some citizens still underrepresented in various spheres of French society?  Why do some college graduates choose to move to Britain, Canada, the US or Middle-East to find a decent job?  As a Black French woman, I am part of this “group” (I still live in France but 100% of my clients are in the US). 

We are called the “visible minorities” and yet we are hardly visible in the administration, in the media, in top-ranked positions in the public or private sectors.   

Article 1 of the French Constitution (adopted in 1958) provides that “France shall be indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic.  It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion.”  This rule is not implemented for instance with the media coverage of issues related to the Muslim community, North Africans or Sub-Saharan Africans (hereby stressing on what differentiates them from ancestral ethnic French people) – who have been confronted to a backlash in reaction to the horrible shootings.   The French society cannot overlook those questions.  After those heinous crimes and this extremely painful experience, France needs to promote a culture of inclusiveness, from an educational, social and economic point of view.  To do so, it will have to deconstruct and redefine its identity.

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