Monday, July 13, 2009

Better late than never...

I've been away from Make It Stop for awhile, partly because nothing moved me sufficiently to offer a comment-- why should you inflict perspective-free drivel on people--and because I spent about ten days in France, utterly removed from the News. I had no computer, no smart phone, no television, even. I did keep my eyes and ears open, though, and something DID get my attention.

As we know, France's state motto is "Liberte, egalite, fraternite"--liberty, equality, brotherhood. Since the time of the French Revolution, French people have steadfastly insisted that everyone in France is a Frenchman, period. In theory, you have no social class, no ethnicity, no religion in the eyes of the state--you are a Frenchman. Unfortunately, in recent years, this insistence that "we are all French" rang hollow in the case of those French citizens who came from France's former overseas colonies, particularly Algeria and Tunisia. They are Frenchmen, all right, but they are disproportionately represented in low-income housing, the ranks of the unemployed and poor, and manifestly underrepresented, even absent, in high-profile or prestige occupations. The word on the street is that if you are of African descent, you are a lot less French than some other French people when it comes to opportunities for advancement in society. French authorities have repeated "we are all Frenchmen" like a mantra even in the face of destructive riots and protests in the last few years.

So imagine my surprise when my friend and I drove to Verdun to inspect the memorial complex there last month. Verdun is Verdun, a monument to some of the bloodthirstiest military leaders ever. This time, though, I immediately noticed a new, white, mosque-like structure with a small obelisk within on the road to Fort Douamont. It turned out to be a monument--to my knowledge, the first-ever monument--to the French Muslim(read:colonial) troops who played a key role in saving Verdun from German conquest. Then-President Jacques Chirac dedicated it two years ago this month. We wondered what brought this on, since previously all soldiers on the allied side were "French," period. Apparently it came in response to some flagrant grave desecrations elsewhere, especially in Arras on the Somme, vandals . But this is not a every memorial area, museum and bookstore, we noted new exhibits and volumes specifically dedicated to the French colonial soldier's experience in the Great War. At last, it seems that the French government acknowledges that there ARE differences among Frenchmen, and that maybe it is a wise gesture to recognize some of those "different" groups. That isn't going to integrate politics or business overnight, but it's a constructive step that COULD make some people feel valued and/or welcomed. France is a multicultural nation...might as well learn to like and live with that!

Plus c'est la meme chose, plus ca change...


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