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