By Abdellah Taïa, a novelist and memoirist. This article was translated by The Times from the French (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 13/04/06):
I SPENT half my life dreaming about France, about Paris especially. In Salé, my Moroccan hometown, life was limited and poor, but happy. I understood nothing, absolutely nothing, of politics — the result of a government policy to stamp out any spark of political awareness. Like most Moroccans born in the 1970’s, I was both afraid of King Hassan II and fascinated by him. I escaped to Paris in my mind, thanks to films and the French newspapers I stole from my grandfather.
By luck I was able to escape in reality, and arrived in Paris in 1998. With its emphasis on individual rights, this city opened doors for me. Little by little, I became political; intellectual debates began to have meaning. They were not just blather. But with its racism, the city closed other doors. With time, the meaning disappeared and blather became the rule.
France lives today, more than ever, in a utopian fantasy. The gap between the political leadership and the people is enormous. The elites seem to speak to us of outdated concepts, far, very far from reality. France can’t deal with its “foreigners” who have French nationality and does little to integrate them into society. Islam is the second religion of the country, yet France cannot speak intelligently to its millions of Muslims; it calls us all the “Muslim community” as if there were only one way to be a Muslim.
France knows that it needs to change its economic system, but each attempt is blocked, as it was this week with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s bid to encourage businesses to give jobs to young people by loosening the strict labor laws governing their hiring and firing. It’s often said that the French are all grumblers, and that cliché is more than true.
While the students who have been in the streets are right to protest against the precarious life that awaits them, it’s also true that the French are timid, even frightened of change, as we saw last year in their strong reaction against the entry of Turkey into an enlarged European Union. Turkey, long considered part of Europe, suddenly didn’t qualify, in the French view, for the rights and privileges of the union.
The disturbances last November in the poor, predominantly minority suburbs of Paris, the banlieues, surprised many in France. Their surprise in turn surprised me, showing me to what extent, even in this country proclaiming itself for fraternité and the rights of man, society is divided into two classes, the rich and the poor. Exactly like Morocco.
And in the face of these disturbances how did the government react? What were its proposals for helping the banlieusards to feel as French as everyone else? It contented itself with declaring a state of emergency for three months. That’s it.
Since then, the news media have finally deigned to take an interest in the people who live “elsewhere” (what, another country?), but the banlieusards are in agreement that nothing has changed. They predict that there will soon be another explosion, more violent this time. In the meantime, the French political class, with its short memory, is preoccupied with only one thing, the 2007 presidential elections.
This week, Mr. de Villepin and President Jacques Chirac withdrew the troublesome labor law, saying that they wanted to replace it with … what exactly? Nobody is sure, but students are ending their blockades and protests. As with the disturbances of last November, I suspect the government will play another magic trick: making believe that something is being done even as the problem festers.
That’s the France where I live today. A country of culture, of liberty, of myths, of illusions about battling for something. A country of the past, passed by.
My mother, who lives in Morocco, called me a few days ago and asked me a strange question: “Where are you, my son?” Not understanding what she meant, I made her repeat her question twice. I answered, after a pause, not sure of myself, “In France, still in ….” She didn’t let me finish. “But what is France?” she asked.
I still don’t know what to answer.