Decolonisation in school books

In relation to my post about Paris’ Museum for Immigration, I would like to mention a young comedian I discovered last weekend on a French comedy show. “Rire Contre le Racisme” (Laughing Against Racism) is a stand-up show with various comedians supposed to make people aware of racism and fight against it. Most of the comedians were boring – if not racist themselves – but fourteen year-old Stephane Bak stuck out and made some smart points about contemporary problems that young people from migrant backgrounds are sometimes faced with; for example he pointed out that the teenage black boy he is could not relate to his school history books as he could not find his own history inside them. I quote him: “the only time I see a black person he is wearing underpants and is being whipped!”. History books would therefore only depict the indigenous populations of the former colonies as “Exotic” figures subjected to the Frenchman.

This reminded me of how French school books are very backwards in how they explain colonisation and decolonisation. I myself remember studying decolonisation as a list: 1956 independence of Tunisia and Morocco, 1958 independence of Guinea etc. Algeria got a little more attention but only because the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale, the Algerian independence movement) was deemed violent enough to be mentioned as it led a series of attacks in France. No mention was made of what France did to Algerians and of its illegitimate presence in Algeria. This approach to France’s recent history goes back to 2005 (43 years after the independence of Algeria!) and I doubt the contents of school books have changed much today…

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French socialists en avant-première

Although the French presidential elections will only be taking place next year, the French media is already buzzing and fussing. About political alliances. About potential candidates. And mostly, about who will be elected within the French Socialist party to represent it. French presidential elections take place every five years, with a large panel of parties. In 2007, twelve candidates were running. Whether this large number of candidates illustrates democracy or confusion is debatable; maybe there is a bit of both.

To summarise the French electoral system very briefly: there are two ballots; during the first round the two candidates with the most votes go through while during the second, one of the two remaining candidates needs to collect more than 50% of the votes to be elected president. Democracy translates into the diversity of opinions represented but confusion prevails when you realise that the smaller parties – in particular left-wing parties – never really have a chance of winning; the French Left is divided into different factions instead of constituting one block of opposition and this enables larger right-wing parties to go through.

To give an example, in 2002, the extreme- right National Front (FN) went through to the second ballot along with the equivalent of the French conservative party (at the time “RPR”, now “UMP”)  as all left-wing votes were spread between different parties. Because of this, no left-wing party was numerically important enough to go to the second round. The 2002 election was unexpected as the two most influential parties of the country are the French Socialist Party and Sarkozy’s conservative UMP . It ended with massive votes against the National Front which reflected panic rather than actual support to former President Jacques Chirac.

My post started with the interest of the media in the Socialist Party’s internal elections; it will soon be choosing who will be its candidate for the presidential elections. These internal elections have been widely covered by the media since Spring although they will only take place in October of this year. A debate between these candidates (there are six of them) will take place tonight on national television. Here is the party’s presentation page for all the candidates – I’m afraid it is only available in French but it still gives an idea of the set-up.

Unfortunately, while the party seems to think that this is a sign of greater democracy – other parties do not expose their internal elections as openly – these elections, or “primaires socialistes” as they are called, are detrimental to its image. They denote internal divisions instead of the idea of a strong unit that will be running for presidency in a few months’ time. It will be difficult for French voters to trust them completely if they are fighting among their own ranks, especially when most of the candidates lack charisma.

Without being a big supporter of the Socialist Party in itself, it is problematic that the only “left-wing” party with enough weight might not be able to oppose right-wing parties such as the UMP which encompasses more and more discriminatory ideologies, or maybe even the FN. In the meantime, Sarkozy is travelling around France (his latest appearance was where new trains were being built: “le train, c’est la France”, “the train is France” – no comment); he was also very patriotic the last national day before the elections (14 July) by defending French soldiers in Afghanistan, and his wife is now pregnant. Nice PR, cliché, but probably efficient in comparison…

So far, so bad?

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Where do we go now?

After a selection in Cannes earlier this year, Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s new film “Where do we go now?” is finally out and about in France. Films are released on Wednesdays here and I am surprised that it is released in France before it is in Lebanon (date of release: 22 sept.). Labaki is a young and promising film director/actress who impressed me with her first film Caramel. Caramel’s women were subtle and their characters just felt right. I remember it as a touching movie.

“Where do we go now?” is also about women. Women in a mountain village who fight against the sectarianism of their husbands and sons (Christians against Muslims). The women are strong, humorous and smart. Young or old they are remarkable women and Labaki’s feminist streak is always welcome in the film world! The women use all kind of tricks to unite the men – I will not detail those in case you would like to see the film – while more serious issues about religious divides and the violence that follows are depicted.

If, like me, you do not like to hear critiques of films or books before discovering them yourself, you might want to skip what follows!

“Where do we go now?” is filmed very well, the acting is impeccable within the script and the idea of uniting women for a second time but in a different setting is an idea I quite like. Yet, there are a few elements that I also disliked. The first was that the divide between Christians and Muslims living in the same village (a cohabitation not very common in Lebanon as most villages or cities are predominantly of one religious community) is introduced abruptly. If Labaki wants to bring up the issue of sectarianism, a more subtle, mounting tension would have been more efficient and also, more credible.

Also, the narrative lacks coherence and this is partly due to the fact that Labaki is too present as an actress. Labaki’s character is the owner of a café and the film gives the impression that her love story with the worker renovating the café will be central to the narrative. However, halfway through, she switches focus to follow the tragic events a mother from the village is confronted with. This mother becomes the main character and really is the most gripping one. Finally, the pace of the story is uneven as we are rushed from one event to another, without enough time to fully know the village and its inhabitants.

Overall, the film deserved to be a little more polished and could have been much more striking and anti-sectarian in that sense. This being said, I think the film may appeal to different sensibilities, especially in Lebanon where, different generations might relate in various ways to Labaki’s work. Labaki is still bringing forward a new genre and I am sure we will soon discover other new films of hers as potent as Caramel.

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DJ who? DJ Spooky

This summer a friend of mine introduced me to DJ Spooky. He was giving a talk nearby. The name in itself is fun; a spooky DJ? I was up for it and off I went! NY-based musician and professor Paul D. Miller is one of those who can talk about almost anything and make it interesting. He could have talked about trash cans and made them fascinating. As it was, he talked about how he collected sounds in Antarctica and used them in mixes. Here is an ice-cold track! Both the concept and the beats are just awesome.

Miller is also the author of Book of Ice which includes the following excerpt:

When you think of the term “ice” there are so many connotations that
come to mind: surface tension, temperature, the opacity of the material,
the basic sense that it can transform between liquid and solid. It’s elusive
because it can become so many things. People use ice for almost every
purpose—they make houses out of it, use it in their drinks, land airplanes
on it, and if you happen to be in Finland, they make musical instruments
out of it.

What I have done with this book is unpack some of the issues that drive
my artwork and its relationship to the constantly changing facets of
contemporary life in our information-economy dominated, post-everything
twenty-first century. Looking back over the last several centuries, an
intense amount of energy has been expended all over the world exploring
and unraveling the meaning of humanity’s condition on the planet.

Whether in the book or with his music, Miller shares his idea of a free space: as the only uninhabited continent of the world, Antarctica has no government and belongs to no country. We are free to experiment music and art in Antarctica, and even imagine flags and logos for the “Republic of Antarctica” as Miller does in his book. Here is a “PDF sample” of Book of Ice.

DJ Spooky is n-ice!

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Immigration in a museum

This time, no Louvre, no Notre-Dame. I’ve heard of the Museum for Immigration (Cité de l’Immigration) and I want to see it. I can’t quite recall how I found out about it but during a recent stay in Paris I knew I would feel disappointed if I left without visiting. Being of Mauritian-Indian descent and having studied migration to the UK for more than a year for my dissertation, I felt curious about how migration would be presented in a French museum. The museum is relatively new, from 2007; it is also far-off – you have to change a good number of lines to get there – though it is easy to find. I expected to find information about the different waves of migration to France, the Poles, Portuguese, Italians, North Africans, how they arrived and worked and maybe, integrated. I did not know what else I would see, and hoped the museum would surprise me with an interesting take on multiculturalism or racism for instance.

To my disappointment, I found only what I had expected. The museum is divided into three parts (as explained by the guide provided inside): the first deals with migration in itself, the countries from which people left and how they arrived in France. The second explains how migrants found work, went to school and depicts their every day life in French society including sports. The third part is dedicated to objects and words from other countries, some of which have now been adopted by French culture and language.

What struck me was that the museum dealt with all these themes quite superficially, and in a very neutral manner. The link between North Africans/ Africans and France through the former empire is only mentioned in passing when I believe that more context should be given to better understand the ties that exist between France and those countries today. Discrimination was depicted in old posters and caricatures but nearly only there. It was interesting to read about the evolution of laws with regards to migrants but it would have been nice to find more information about far-right movements and anti-racism organisations (such as SOS Racisme). Also, the themes of integration and mixing lacked body and needed to be dealt with more extensively.

What about the National Front? What about neo-colonialism *inside* France? What about food? Why not say out loud and clear that France is still a discriminatory state with right-wing parties while couscous is now part of French cuisine?

Practically speaking, the museum also lacked a few basics such as couches in front of the tv screens instead of just the one stool.

Despite these drawbacks, the museum is still a great initiative and the website is a good introduction to anything to do with immigration in France. The staff was also very helpful and friendly so the museum has a lot of potential on top of being modern. I did not visit it myself but I heard their library was good.

In any case, any initiative to contribute to better understanding other cultures is not to be undermined and this is certainly not my purpose here. I rather like to think that we should endeavour to develop them and make them better. Immigration cannot be dealt with superficially in terms of figures and maps. We have to be more open about it and make sure that all the issues it encompasses are not taboo!

[The papers read: “work permit”, “residence permit”, “identity card”, “passport”, “orange card” (transport card) and “breathing authorization”.]

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