Saturday 16 May 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay in, Sit Up and Switch On

Like most humans I am full of contradictions. Sometimes I am partial to the one-size-fits-all tyranny and some other times I prefer the freedom to display my own idiosyncrasies. Sometimes it seems to me that to toe the collective’s line saves time and effort whereas on other occasions I have been known to speak my mind clear. And loud. Sometimes, too loud.

That is why I look at a country like France, where I vacationed last summer, and I wonder if I could ever fit into their social and cultural set-up. In theory, I should. I still speak French almost fluently and I know I would become completely fluent quickly; I like French food, especially the type one finds in the campagne. However, there are traits I do not quite get yet and I doubt the week I spent there in August was enough time for me to throw some light on the matter.

Ever since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket, France has been on a soul-searching journey. I read reports every now and then on how politicians, journalists, social commentators and ordinary people in general are still wondering why what happened, happened.

At the centre of it all, lies education. And with education, those three century-old words that encapsulate the French raison d’être: freedom, equality, fraternity. But what do they mean now when globalisation has become a byword for continent-hopping, low-waged economies and loss of national identities? These three ideals had a role to play when the emerging industrial, capitalist elite of a still imperial Europe wanted to wrestle control over politics and the economy from the church. Fast-forward to our present-day and it has taken an Argentinian Pope countless hours channelling his inner Che Guevara, to get the faithful to flock to catholic churches again.

All right, then, where's my equality?

Is it strange then that some of the communities that have settled in France for the last five or six decades still find it hard to adapt when the message from up above is: stick to our three words and you will be fine, even if the “equality” bit does not apply totally?

This is the part where I contradict myself. In theory I am all for the French system. As I mentioned before, sometimes a template that acts as a social default mechanism towards which all citizens, both born in and outside the country, gravitate is preferable to catering to each individual culture. The problem is when the image a country exports, like France, for instance, is at odds with the ethnic mix of its population. In the same way that a computer that does not update its software will malfunction after a while, a society that fails to recognise social and cultural changes risks ostracising its own citizens. This is not pandering to a particular group, but ensuring that the “freedom, equality, fraternity” of centuries gone by is applicable to today’s France.

Despite the fact that during the Bush administration the French were known as “surrender monkeys” due to their (right, in my opinion) refusal to join the disastrous invasion of Iraq, I find similarities between the Gallic nation and the United States of America. Especially when it comes to patriotism and national pride. The minute I began to learn French all those years ago, I was made aware by my teacher and other staff at the Alliance Française in Havana that I was accessing one of the richest cultures on the planet. This was validated when I travelled to France last summer. I noticed straight away that there was a certain “French way”. It was present in the way they talked, the way they walked, the way they looked at me, without hostility but with “un certain regard”.  I imagine it is the same in the US (never been there but I’m planning to visit at some point in the near future). Fellow Cubans who have lived there for years have told me that there is a template to which most immigrants are encouraged to default. The American way, if you like.

The problem arises when this template remains impervious to external influences. Of course, the Charlie Hebdo massacre was the work of deranged human beings for whom the sanctity of life that you, dear reader, and I hold dear, does not exist. The question is always the same after: why? If values such as “freedom, equality, fraternity” are not taught and understood as universal human values, but rather promoted chiefly through a western-focused prism, they lose meaning to many people. Not just immigrants, but also people born and raised in these societies and who feel left out. It is the same with the much-vaunted British “values” ex-Education Minister Michael Gove wanted schools to drum into their students: fairness, civic duty and other pleasantries. To me these are human traits and certainly not attached to a particular nation or continent.

Maybe France needs to have a conversation with itself. I know Europe needs to lie down on the shrink’s couch and have a clear-the-air session. After all, having a template to which we can all default is a good idea. But a better idea would be to do what Microsoft does to its Windows system: update it every now and then.

© 2015

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 20th May at 6pm (GMT)


  1. I am feeling guilty right now, not as an American who has many of these problems of ideals not relating to everyone, but as a computer user who put on hold my latest Microsoft update so that I could work and surf the internet.... :)

    Another good post that makes us think. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for articulating so clearly things I have been wrestling with for some time. Our politicians have a habit of claiming as particularly 'Australian' virtues which I believe are human rather than belonging to any nationality. And sadly it makes my contrarian self instantly long to say 'not me, not me'.

  3. I agree that a refusal to change is essential. It has been bitterly hard for Britain though. My guess it is even harder for the french, because in so many ways the notion of the French way of doing things has been absolutely central in their society.

  4. That is what they do, whether good or bad, they stick to the same old things. Never updating, always falling back on engrained notions.

  5. All I can say is that this sign reminds me so much of Quebec. Here in Quebec everything is in French. :)

  6. Worthwhile thoughts. Glad To read your ideas. Coming to the US? Which one? Progressive urban America with marriage equality, diverse population, medical [or completely legal] marijuana, organic food; or the America I call Jesus-stan with overweight, angry know-it-alls with awful health and social infrastructure? I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on all THAT! LOL

    ( '>

    ALOHA from Honolulu,

  7. Such "habits" are the natural (and, maybe, the logical) extension of family to tribe to nation customs and values. Pockets of resistance to change can go on for generations, even in this rapidly moving age.

    Conversely, the cliché, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," did not arise out of thin air, but from common sense and, I think, makes good sense. New arrivals to any country sometimes are slow to acclimate, particularly when they come from places where traditions and religions and political systems are vastly different. I think this is one problem many nations are facing at the moment, but in the past has worked itself out after a generation or two or three.

    I would point out that two U.S. senators currently running for president here are of Cuban lineage. Marco Rubio's parents immigrated from Cuba and Ted Cruz's father actually fought with Fidel Castro for a time. You might be judging the Cuban émigré acceptance of American ways too harshly, CiL. You might put Little Havana in Miami on your list of places to tour in the USA .... I will meet you at Larios on the Beach for drinks and dinner.

  8. What a thoughtful piece! I guess we're brought up on a diet of equality and freedom for all that we don't really question if we have those values as a society and - more importantly - if those values still carry meaning.

  9. Agreed - as long as the clear-out, here in the UK, doesn't involve the repeal of the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a Bill of 'Rights and Responsibilities' which will only apply to upstanding citizens. So the second you step away from the Tory way you would have no recompense for the scrutiny - meaning Doreen Lawrence would have had no right of redress when the police investigated her instead of the murder of her son.

  10. I think governments are painted with the same brush and colour but I am not eloquent enough to put it into political words. One thing I am sure of, though, the word 'foreign' will soon need to be removed from the dictionary.

  11. Many countries are long overdue for a conversation with themselves.....

  12. I think it's difficult to get people to change on any level. It's just so much easier to go along as we have been. But change is essential to moving forward.

  13. Thanks for your comments. Change takes time and it is difficult when principles are set almost in stone. But humans are not stone-like. We are more malleable and flexible. :-)

    Greetings from London.

  14. You raise difficult questions. I think that the French do have a right to maintain a very secular culture which has always been their culture-- at least for a very long time-- and that nations do have a sense of national identity that they may wish to preserve. Even if the traits are human traits, there are traits that one associates with a certain language even with the facial expressions that result from the language. I don't think the French should marginalize the Muslim communities-- of cojrse not-- but I also think that their secular culture can disallow hijab in office governmental settings. I also think a country has a right to prohibit cultural practices that are not only foreign to it but kind of anathema-- like many types of discrimination against women--

    But it is certainly all very complex. Thanks. K.

  15. Well, I found your commentary very interesting...but don't feel competent to comment! Love reading your opinions though.

  16. I am a French citizen, I tend to agree with Outlawyer. Sadly it is far easier to spot the problems than solve them.

  17. A most thoughtful post! Countries, like people, will shift this way and that based on what is foremost on people's minds at the time.. Not that popular thoughts become "popular" overnight. I've seen the US shift from a pragmatic centrist government in the late 50's under Eisenhower's helm, to a more idealistic and visionary stand with John Kennedy and Johnson. Major reforms to improve education for all children occurred in the sixties while our college kids were protesting the Vietnam War. Most civil rights legislation took place at a time when a southerner, Johnson, was in charge, fighting off the ideas of another southerner, Gov. Wallace from Alabama was standing against any integration of schools... As people become fed up with the status quo, opinions will switch, changes will be proposed in congress, social media will invade people's old habits...We're due for a major overall of the status quo in this country. , .

  18. Intriguing post. I've only been to France once in my life and that was just for a few days many years ago, But I do appreciate your observation about paying lip service to liberty without actually spreading it around to the more recent arrivals. Your Microsoft analogy sounds like a good idea.



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