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Three women wearing the hijab join a protest march in 2003 against the French government’s decision to ban the Islamic headscarf in schools, hospitals and public buildings. Photo by Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images

A French malaise

The writer returns to France after a 13-year hiatus and discovers a country increasingly uneasy about its growing multiculturalism

By Tim Johnson

Approaching Caudebec-en-Caux on a river ship plying the Seine in northwest France, one feature stands out: Église Notre-Dame. Surrounded by a cluster of waterside buildings, the Flamboyant Gothic church, built in the 15th and 16th centuries, utterly dominates this town of 2,300 people in Normandy. With towering balustrades, carefully crafted stained glass and a fine pipe organ, it serves as both an evocative place of worship and a museum — a monument to a Catholicism that no longer has much currency in this officially secular state.    

Disembarking the river ship and making the short walk through the bustling town to the church, I find exactly what I had expected — and what I would anticipate inside similar churches elsewhere in the country. This testament to both faith and artisanship is entirely empty, and it will largely remain so week in and week out. As I walk through it, I notice that generations of paraffin still linger heavily in the air. It’s so quiet I can almost hear my own heartbeat.   

I’m in northern France, sailing up and down the Seine for almost two weeks, in the land of liberté, egalité and fraternité, 13 years after my first visit. This is a land saturated with history, a place that was home to Monet and Van Gogh and Richard the Lionhearted; where the Normandy landing beaches sit just down the coast from some of the country’s most glamorous resorts; where the rural way of life hasn’t changed much in generations.

The tranquillity here belies the recent news headlines. From the attacks in Paris and Nice that killed hundreds and tore at the nation’s social fabric, to the recent burkini controversy, where some municipalities attempted to legislate and enforce what women should wear — or not wear — at the beach, France’s secular soul is in turmoil.

Back in 2003, I spent almost six months living in Lille, France’s fourth-largest city, which sits near the Belgian border in the northernmost region of the country. I taught English and engaged in a sort of cultural exchange, which included joining a French semi-professional baseball team called Les Dragons de Ronchin.

The other players quickly welcomed me into their tight-knit fold. My students did the same, teaching me French as I taught them English, asking every time I saw them about my progress. “Un peu, un peu,” I would assure them with a smile. But even then, before the current chaos in Syria, I could see the tension on the ground in France.

One day, while driving toward downtown Lille, we passed a series of tenements in a low-rent suburb. I noticed some significant vandalism, which included scorched phone books hanging from a few lonely phone booths. My teaching colleague Jon Pilch, an American who had been living in France for 18 years, explained that this neighbourhood had a large population of Algerians and Moroccans; some were disaffected and expressed their displeasure in this way. “And every so often, a small protest will break out — someone’s car will get burned,” he explained.    

Today, France is home to 4.7 million Muslims, who make up 7.5 percent of the total population. Of these, three million are foreign-born, mostly hailing from France’s former North African colonies in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. A Pew Research Group study published earlier this year noted that, despite the recent troubles, most French maintain a positive view of Muslims, a group that is younger and growing faster than the rest of Europe’s population. However, friction is a day-to-day reality. Violence erupted in Lille during the riots that swept France in 2005. Many young Muslims feel excluded from good jobs and, with them, the larger French society. Some Paris suburbs with a high Muslim population suffer unemployment as high as 45 percent for people under the age of 24.

I recently reconnected with Pilch, who has returned to the United States after living in France for 25 years. He reminisced about his first full year in France studying to learn French in the Alpine town of Albertville, and, how after graduation, he was surprised by how difficult it was to integrate. “I thought after language school that I would blend right in to France, and that no one would know I was a foreigner. It didn’t take long to realize that was not true, and that I would never be French. It is not just the language, but the whole mentality.”

It can be difficult to imagine in a country like Canada — where the population comes in so many stripes and colours, and where newcomers can credibly call themselves Canadian after a relatively short time in the country — that even someone born in France might never be regarded by many as truly French. “It’s like being rejected by your mother,” one young Muslim woman told a filmmaker in a 2015 BBC documentary that explores what it means to be Muslim in France. I also noticed this feeling of being an outsider-looking-in during my few months in Lille. Given the sheer number of churches that dot this country, you might think it’s somehow related to France’s longtime, and formerly pervasive, Roman Catholicism. But you’d be wrong. Many of the current tensions, especially with religious minorities, stem from France’s staunch secularism.   

The official online mouthpiece of France’s federal government,
gouvernement.fr, proudly announces that secularism is a French invention, and the French state has eagerly enforced its tenets for a long time. Known collectively as laïcité, this formal enshrinement of a strict separation between church and state became law in 1905, but has roots reaching back to the French Revolution. “Laïcité . . .  today has acquired so much mystique as to be practically an ideology, a timeless norm that defines Frenchness,” Robert Zaretsky wrote earlier this year in a Foreign Policy editorial titled “How French Secularism Became Fundamentalist.” Recent national laws have banned the wearing of face coverings, including the niqab, in public spaces, and the decision of a handful of French coastal principalities to outlaw so-called burkinis on public beaches garnered international attention. Zaretsky suggests that this current, strident form, especially in the hands of far-right figures like National Front leader Marine Le Pen, has served to provoke young Muslims. Others have suggested it may even radicalize them.

I first encountered the word laïcité a few months into my time in Lille. The Dragons practised twice a week — a couple of hours in a gym on Tuesday nights, and several more on Saturdays. We played our games on Sundays, travelling to Paris or Calais for our road matches. I didn’t think much of the fact that we played on Sundays but was surprised by a team outing scheduled on Good Friday, and by the number of shops and restaurants that apparently took no notice of the holiday. “It’s laïcité,” my friend, a young bullpen pitcher, noted cheerily. When I asked whether anything closed, he seemed confused. “Oh no,” he told me in French. “We are a secular state.” I’d notice it time and again with my friends on the team — that God, or even religion, wasn’t something that played any role in their day-to-day lives or conversations. Spirituality had been wholly subjugated by secularism — God was off the table. “I sometimes found it refreshing talking with Muslims because at least they believe in God, so there’s that common ground,” Pilch remembers.    

Thirteen years later, I marvel at the creativity, beauty and history that pervade this country as our cruise ship sails up the Seine. At Étretat, on Normandy’s Alabaster Coast, I walk along the famous limestone cliffs, which have crumbled into lovely formations. At Rouen, I see the spot where Jean D’Arc was burned at the stake. In Fécamp, I have dinner inside the halls of a Benedictine abbey whose first foundation dates back to 658. I drink calvados and I eat Camembert. And at Giverny, I walk through the home of Claude Monet, taking photos of his famous water lilies, still growing in a calm pond near the cheerful house.

I sit down for a drink with Lexie Martone, a transplanted American who has lived in France since the early 1970s. We enjoy the shade near a small creek, and she observes that the truest expression of French society can be found in timeless villages like this one. “This is the true heart of France,” says Martone. But it’s all a bit more medieval than perhaps they’d like to admit — you find your place in society, accept it and live it out. “You’re part of the community,” she says. “You’re part of the system.” But what of those who can’t find their place in the system?   

Back on the ship, we sail toward Paris. The view from my balcony changes slowly but dramatically, as charming little villages and wide-open meadows give way to urban sprawl. Once we disembark in the great city, I head to the Marché couvert de Passy, a bustling food market tucked into the dense little laneways and Art Nouveau buildings of the 16th arrondissement. Here, local residents pulling small carts font le marché — literally, do the market.

My guide, Marie Dubuisson, a native Parisian born and raised on the Left Bank, points out that the food around us is all French, most of it local, from the seafood on ice to the eye-popping displays of cheese, to the shelves of colourful vegetables. She adds that many of the food stands have been in the same family for generations.

Earlier, while walking to the Eiffel Tower, I had noticed posters for the National Front, featuring a pair of menacing-looking eyes peering out from behind a niqab, with the tagline: Choisissez votre banlieue (Choose your suburb). I ask Dubuisson about racism. She notes that France, especially Paris, has always been multicultural, a magnet for people from former colonies as far-flung as Vietnam and North Africa. But changing hearts and minds can be slow, especially in the countryside. “These people imagine a ‘crazy Muslim,’ and they haven’t met a Muslim in their lives,” she says. And while racism may be rising since the recent attacks, she sympathizes with minority populations. “These sons and daughters of migrants, they feel like they’re on the outside, looking in,” she says. “It’s always been a bit harder for them.” 

The root of some of these conflicts may be demographic: many native-born French fear losing control of their country — a fear satirized by author Michel Houellebecq in his 2015 novel Submission, which imagines a traditionalist Muslim party being elected to power in 2022. It’s not so outlandish, says Pilch. “Since [immigrant] Muslim families are generally larger than the French, they are gaining demographically, and this will continue to create pressure until it swings the other way,” Pilch observes. “And that is the fear: what would the country be like if it were run by a religious element? It’s a scary thought for the French.”    

That is unless, of course, they can find a better way to invite the disaffected into the heart of their society. To reconcile their laïcité with the fires of fervent belief, perhaps by drawing, even just a little, on the inspiration that built those beautiful churches. And maybe they can lighten up about the burkini thing while they’re at it. The future of the French nation — how it looks and acts, its very nature — may just depend on what they decide to do right now, from the banlieue to the beach.

Tim Johnson is a travel writer based in Toronto.

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