by Roisin Moreau
“Reluctantly French” was how Samira described herself as France proudly scored the victorious goal of the 2022 FIFA World Cup semi-final. I must pause quickly to emphasise my utter disinterest in football – it is merely a vehicle for the story I am about to tell.
Samira was a family friend of mine I had known since birth. Originally from Guadeloupe, of South Indian descent, Samira moved to Paris in 2014 for her studies. As an overseas department and region of France, inhabitants of Guadeloupe follow the French education system and are French citizens. Therefore, the 7,000-kilometre move across the North Atlantic Ocean felt very natural to Samira. Little did she realise the cultural wake-up call she was about to experience.
One sunny April afternoon, Samira and I were taking a stroll along Canal Saint-Martin, northeast of Paris. A middle-aged woman (whom I will henceforth refer to as Colette) with mousey brown hair in a low bun approached us with her two young children in tow. We became engaged in a pleasant conversation. It emerged that she was looking for someone to look after her children three mornings per week, and she eventually enquired as to whether Samira was a nanny. Samira later expressed that this was either the fourth or fifth time somebody had presumed she was a nanny since arriving in France. Though unwittingly done, this position of servitude assigned to Samira on numerous occasions based on her appearance highlights the repercussions of colonialism as an “ongoing actuality and everyday reality” (Abu-Lughod, 2011).
In an effort to redeem herself after noticing the shock behind Samira’s brown eyes and thinned lips, Colette asked in a friendly tone where she was from. “I am French but from Guadeloupe,” Samira replied hesitantly. Colette gasped, and in a complimentary tone, she remarked: “but you have no accent?,” awaiting Samira’s proud reply. Sensing Samira’s toes curling up inside her black leather Dr Martens, I politely excused us from any further conversation, and ushered her towards a bench along the canal banks.
I could understand Samira’s anger. Her assertion of her Frenchness did “not succeed in enforcing [her] claim” on it or having it “accepted as legitimate” (Wekker, 2016) without further questioning from Colette. Her brown skin and long, thick, ebony hair cast her apart and made her ‘different’ from what Colette perceived as French.
The French universalist model of citizenship states that as long as one is a French citizen, one cannot suffer from discrimination because one is French. However, France’s history and the daily experiences of French people of colour (a primary example described above) proves that this fetishization of citizenship does not play out on an even playing field for many of its subjects. In reality, many ethnic minorities experience a lack of social acceptance, and are denied “cultural citizenship” (Rosaldo, 1994), proving that identity papers are not always sufficient.
Sadly, skin colour plays a significant role in defining what a ‘French citizen’ should be, which usually resides in the French imagination. This imagination posits whiteness and Christianity at its centre. Therefore, any indication of one’s ethnic or cultural origins that differentiates people from the French imagination, such as foreign languages, non-Christian religious symbolisms, traditional (non-French) clothing, and even the memory of colonialism, need to be covered up and not discussed. This process has historically been known as ‘assimilation.’
Unlike many families in Guadeloupe who embrace their Creole or Indian identities, Samira’s family had fallen prey to France’s assimilation model – their “cultural loyalty” (Wekker, 2016) resulted in them fully embracing a French identity. They had interiorized the values and language of France since before Samira could remember, her Indian identity taken from her before birth. Samira’s initially positive attitude to her French identity would be considered a “success” under the French policy of assimilation which encourages people not to talk about differences. Thus, Colette’s acknowledgement of Samira’s differences highlights to what extent France’s involvement in Caribbean history and identity has been silenced, forgotten, and obliterated. As long as this ignorance of France’s colonial history, which Wekker (2016) calls a “blind spot,” exists on a widespread scale amongst the white majority, France will continue to discriminate against people of colour. The French system is thus contradictory, as it does not within its legal framework account for difference but socially in so many everyday encounters, it reflects perceptions of ‘deviation’ and ‘polarity.’
“Reluctantly French.” I could now see why. As Saidiya Hartman (2008) notes, a black face did not make her “kin” in Ghana; a French passport did not make Samira “kin” in France.
Back to The Football
As the camera lingered over the faces of black, white, and brown players, united by the blue t-shirts on their backs, I thought about the pressure on them to sing La Marseillaise under the careful scrutiny of the cameras before a match during which all their last moves were to be dissected and discussed. I wondered what it must feel like singing the patriotic lyrics of “La Marseillaise,” – a national anthem laced with the legacies of imperialism and French national sentiment: that chants the words “impure blood,” often sung as a rallying cry at political events in Algeria during the French occupation. What does it mean, and how might it feel, to be a footballer representing a country that, by forever failing to acknowledge its colonial past, will never recognise people of colour as true citizens?
I turned my attention to the spectators. I glanced around the bar at the hundreds of eyes glued to the two TV screens, the sound of La Marseillaise suffocating my ears, pride and patriotism seeping out of people’s pores. The ability to recite the words in such a trance-like joyous state demonstrated how ingrained it has become in French culture. Were people unaware or perhaps ignorant of the subversive lyrics? Had the words of La Marseillaise, indoctrinated into them since a young age, influenced the French “imaginary” on how they viewed French citizens as anyone that did not possess “impure blood”? Therefore, by singing La Marseillaise, was the ethnically diverse French football team playing a role to their own detriment?
“Reluctantly French.” This was yet another situation that made Samira question the “French” in her French identity. What French identity had she been claiming? Was it the days teaching me “Frère Jacques” on her grandmother’s porch as five-year-old girls? Getting her croissant from a particular bakery in the 18ème because Carrefour’s patisserie section was by no means up to scratch? Shaking her head in disappointment every time I wore my red beret because, in her eyes, it was “too cliché” and “so un-French”? Samira has come to the realisation that no matter how hard she tries to claim her French identity, her skin colour and darker features will always cast her apart from the image of the French citizen, which continues to reside in the French imagination. Therefore, she is now increasingly associating with her Indian identity. She has started wearing saris on special occasions and is learning Tamil.
“Liberty, equality, fraternity,” as a symbol of French citizenship, seems highly ironic for a nation criticised for inequality, division, and abuse of power. This motto worked in a country with cultural unity. However, in the last sixty years, France has become increasingly multicultural. The question becomes whether these ideals are reflected in everyday experiences for brown/black people in particular. In my mind, they are three empty words that exist for the sole purpose of political manipulation (creating a false sense of unity) and a need by the French state to view itself as magnanimous. Until France can live up to their national motto, “being French” will live on as a set of false promises that live only in the French imagination, striving to unify a population to the detriment of a perpetual “Other.” An Other forced to categorize themselves as “reluctantly French.”
Abu-Lughod, L. 2011. Return to Half-Ruins: Fathers and Daughters, Memory, and History in Palestine. In Hirsch M. & Miller N. (Eds.), Rites of Return: Diaspora Poetics and the Politics of Memory (pp. 124-136). New York: Columbia University Press.
Hartman, S., 2008. Lose Your Mother. [S.I.]: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Ioanide, P., 2015. The Emotional Politics of Racism. How Feelings Trump Facts in an Era of Color Blindness. California: Stanford University Press.
Mills, Charles., 2007. “White Ignorance.” Chapter 1 in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. Edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana. State University of New York Press.
Rosaldo, R., 1994. Cultural Citizenship and Educational Democracy. Cultural Anthropology, 9(3), 402–411. http://www.jstor.org/stable/656372
Wekker, G., 2016. White innocence: Paradoxes of colonialism and race. Durham: Duke University Press
I feel sad for the pain this girl has gone through. Cultural identity is such a complex issue.