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Eureka: A fireside chat on French current affairs Eureka: A fireside chat on French current affairs
by Akli Hadid
2018-04-11 08:16:56
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Go to any conference on contemporary studies and you'll often see that French researcher discuss racial profiling around the world in the 19th and early 20th century. Racial profiling is the forbidden question in France, and one that few readily discuss or can clearly define, but it's on a lot of people's minds. The point is you ask the French what their contemporary views are on education, linguistics, politics, social issues or security issues and the immediate thing that comes to mind is racial profiling.

fra01_400So in this fireside chat I'll discuss the following: racial profiling, language use, then security, immigration, anti-Semitism, the current political climate, education, the media, the workplace and the economy. I'll just say that this is not an evaluation of France. I'm not grading France, giving it an A+ or a D-, nor am I praising or criticizing. Yes France has the world's most refined cuisine some say, yes France has a very good welfare system, free healthcare, free education, unlimited unemployment benefits, subsidized housing, subsidized agriculture, endless touristic spots, a rather good transportation system which is also subsidized, good wine and refined tastes when it comes to fashion. But its bureacratic system can come straight out of a Kafka novel, its workplace environment can come straight out another Kafka novel, and the French aren't among the world's happiest people. Hell if my country had the world's best reputation for food and wine, I'd be happy. But this fireside chat is descriptive in nature and is not meant to read as a school grade report card.

Racial profiling

It's that thing everyone does but everyone pretends not to do in France. Most best-selling books have something to do with racial profiling, and the most viewed videos on Youtube involve racial profiling of some kind. Could be that imitation of the French accent of some African country, or a comedian discussing some kind of racial minority. And of course pundits who discuss everything from racism to anti-racism (a very French concept) to the right to racial profiling. In politics, French political parties swear they don't engage in racial profiling, only to find people from minorities in token positions a lot of times.

So what's the deal with racial profiling in France? France, the birthplace of individual rights and freedoms, was occupied by the Nazis in 1940. The Jews, who had always been rather well assimilated, were forced to wear the yellow star and were deported to concentration camps. This is brought up in the media almost everyday in France. There's always a reminder of some kind that this has happened. So your ethnic identity is something everyone notices but no one talks about, although you know they've noticed it becaause they talk about it in very subtle ways.

So let's put the question in blunt terms and get it over with. Is anyone who is the holder of a French passport a member of the “French race” or does France recognize regional and ethnic sub-cultures? This is a question that divides a lot of French people. Some believe that all holders of a French passport are the members of a “French race” and should show no signs of distinct regional or ethnic and cultural traits. Others believe that regional and ethnic cultures should be celebrated and that people should be allowed to talk about their ethnic sub-culture freely.

Proponents of a “French race” believe that once you hold that French passport, you should have a French name, eat French food, drink French wine and speak French. Foreign languages are useless. Those who believe regional and ethnic cultures should be celebrated believe that people should be allowed to choose ethnic names for their children, openly eat ethnic food, openly admit diertary restrictions, openly celebrate regional, ethnic or religious holidadys and openly speaak foreign languages.

Thankfully cross-cultural marriages are slowly solving the dilemma. A lot of the younger generation of French citizens are being raised French, immigration has slowed down in the last 20 years and the new generation of French citizens is more of a culturally globalized batch, trying a bit of every food, traveling the world and dating a bit of every citizenship. But for the older generation, racial profiling is very much on their mind, almost an obsession.

Language use

There's that story about that guy who speent so much time cleaning and decorating his house that he didn't have time to actually live in it. Well that's the same thing with some French people, who spend so much time polishing their language use that they end up having no time for putting actual content in their language use.

Theories on language use in France go hand in hand with theories on racial profiling. That is, do you standardize the language and make sure everyone speaks the same way, as in one big French race, or do you allow liberties as for regionnal and ethnic language use. Regional variations of the language are barely tolerated, ethnic variations of the French language tend not to be tolerated in France.

Here's a personal story. I don't really have an accent to speak of in French, I speak standard Parisian French. But my Israeli genes mean I tend to be very straightdorward, concise, to the point in my language use and tend to have littlel tolerance for ambiguity. Language is not just a matter of accent, it's also a matter of use. Because of my straightforward and unambiguous ways people tend to think I have an American accent of sorts.

The question is in a multicultural environment you are going to have people using different accents, but also having different uses of the language. While grammar and vocabulary tends to be rigidly standardized, pragmatics, or the pragmatic use the language has not been standardized. So the question is, do you leave each to choose their own language use and accent, or do you use character assassination tactics for those who don't use accepted variations of the language.

Security

Crime rate, street harrassment, theft, drug trafficking, gang wars, terrorism... France has a security problem. My mind is split on those. Either the French are deliberately allowing the security situation to deteriorate because right-wing parties tend to win at elections when the security climate is bad, or, the more logical option, French ambiguities and inabiliity to get to the point when trying to solve problems is what leads to the dismal security situation.

I've discussed security problems with the French. My God do they beat around the bush. They're trying to find the reasons behind the security problems, rather than try to discuss the solutions to security problems. The solution is simple. Look at Algiers. Once one of the world's most dangerous cities. The government hired a ton a police officers, gave them the state of the art technological equipment, encouraged a zero tolerance policy on crime, and bam, Algiers is rather safe now. That's the solution. Hire more police officers, give them clear instructions, give them the best technological equipment, encourage them to communicate clearly among themselves, zero-tolerance on crime, hefty sentences for criminal offenses. Bam, crime problem solved. Then there are the relations between the police and organized crime, but that's another story.

Immigration

As someone educated partly in the American system I was taught how to structure my thoughts and express them in a coherent way. When it comes to immigration policy in France and televised debates, I've rarely seen someone express their thoughts in a structured, coherent and complete way, looking at all sides of the coin.

Immigration to France has several dimensions. There are those who study in France and end up assimilating by getting a job in France. There are those who get seasonal jobs and leave. Others get seasonal jobs and stay. Others, mainly from the African continent, but also from Latin America and Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia, overstay their visas and desperately try to marry any French citizen or permanent resident they can find so they can stay in the country. Others are transitional workers, work for companies and then leave. There are of course immigrants from the European continent, France being part of the European Union.

Now that we know who immigrates to France, you may want to know a little bit of history. During the industrial revolution of the early 19th century, France needed labor for agriculture, mining and factory work. The demand remained the same until the 1970s, when high population and slow growth meant there was no more need to bring people to work at mines, plow fields or work at factories. Immigrants still came nontheless, but in much smaller numbers.

Until the 1970s immigrants were mostly transiting in France. They would be single or have their wives back in their home country, work in France, and then move abroad once retired. But reform of the retirement pension system along with a bunch of single factory workers who had no families to take care of them meant France invited families to join in the 1970s. This is because workers could no longer receive their retirement pensions if they lived in their home countries and because being single, they were causing a little bit of trouble.

An influx of second generation immigrants meant a group of young people torn between the local culture and their parents' culture. Now remember the whole “French race”' story and how little tolerance some French people can have for regional or ethnic cultural traits. This means a lot of politicians when discussing first generation immigrants, are really discussing second generation immigrants.

Anti-Semitism

The Jews have been in France long enough to know that the French have little tolerance foe ethnic and regional minorities. From the end of World War II to the 1990s, the tendency was really to assimilate. In some cases completely assimilate, including through intermarriage and abandoning religious traditions. A group of Jewish refugees from North Africa, mainly Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt sort of revived practice of what was dying Jewish traditions.

In the 1990s, ethnic and regional cultures started, although timidly, being celebrated in the French media. So the Jews thought “why not us.” Jewish organizations started speaking to the media when they once avoided the media, Jewish celebrities started opening up about their origins and faith, but for the average Jew, assimilation was still the norm. Assimilation doesn't just mean hiding cultural and religious traditions, in a lot of cases it just meant giving them up altogether.

Now opening up about the Jewish faith had the backclash of angry French people from all sides. Jewish organizations were torn between hate mail from French people and organizations who believe ethnic and regional cultures should not be celebrated, and from a radical group of Muslim immigrants who still had the reflex of persecuting Jews. Anti-Semitism sometimes takes the form of hate mail, in other cases it can take more brutal forms.

Current political climate

In France politics are essentially about two things: educational background and legacy. Screw policy making. Most politicians high ranking politicians stem from the National School of Administration, a highly elitist school that only admits about 200 students per year, despite getting thousands of applicants. The school is a two-year program, equivalent to a Masters' degree, but the graduates almost automatically end up in high-paying, high-ranking government positions. Those who don't graduate from the National School of Administration have a shot at high-ranking political life if they are graduates of the Institute of Political Studies, other presigious schools with low acceptance rates and high application rates, or if they stem from Labor Unions. Any background other than that and your chances of ending up in political life are slim.

Once elected or appointed, politicians tend to focus on legacy rather than on policy making. Token measures, token measures, token measures. This still hasn't changed since the 2017 elections. Bring the cameras, honor famous figures, organize parades, and lots of ceremonies, and promote token laws. For the rest of this fireside chat, I'll discuss four areas that warrant the attention of French politicians: educatoin, the media, the workplace and the economy.

Education

Being a product of the French education system, I don't think I was ever asked to provide an opinion on anything. Teachers. Remember when I said I was taught to express my thoughts in complete, structured and coherent fashion. I was surprised at how a lot of French teachers don't follow a curriculum, a lot of their teaching is off-topic, they don't contextualize their teaching, and again, they rarely if ever ask students to give any opinion on anything.

No wonder the students are not paying attention in class, are constantly playing with their smartphones, dread school and are constantly looking for ways to escape. Some say public schools and private schools are different. Curriculum wise they are no different really, the only difference is private school students have money and a lot of public school students don't. Private school students travel, see the world, have money to spend which teaches them the kind of common sense a lot of public school students don't have.

There's only one way to fix this: professional development for teachers. A lot of French teachers complain that they have no one to talk to so they can take stock of their teaching, and that they have no idea what they are doing in class. Over the years this can weigh negatively on teachers.

The media

Because the education system doesn't really focus on creative writing and expressing opinions, and when it does it teaches it in ways so rigid few French people are comfortable with creative writing or expressing opinions. I remember when being damaged by the French education system taking hours before being able to express an opinion or write creatively, because a lot of the French education system focuses on “constrained writing.”

Now this means what I described above, a lot of people can't express their thoughts in structured and coherent ways, even when the cameras are looking. It's no surprise that a lot of the good media creators and film directors are actually school drop-outs.

Science researchers on the other hand do a pretty good job at discoveries. But their problem is once they've discovered something, few of them will move to the next discovery. A lot of them will move to building their legacy.

The workplace

“Restraining” is a word a lot of my French friends tell me when they talk about the French workplace environment. The workplace is hierarchical, competitive, communication tends to lack, and again few are able to comfortably express themselves at the workplace.

But I must say the French are efficient. They tend to look at the result rather than the process, and as long as the results are perfect they don't mind how they got there. The advantage of their education system also reflects on the workplace, as it tends to be prefectionist and detail-oriented. Perhaps one fallacy the French have is to celebrate victories for too long. If sales go well one year, they can dip very quickly. The French also tend to be uncomfortable with change and like to keep the same teams in place for years. So it's often the same people working at the same spot.

The economy

Growth has been stagnating in France. This is due to several factors. The main factor is the larger pool of competitors for exports. France is an industrial giant but over the years we've seen the emergence of many industrial giants, including India and China. The larger pool of competitors means quality is no longer enough. The French tend to focus a lot on quality and think that quantity will follow. Unfortunately, given the global receding economy, quality is no longer enough, price factors and quantity are also important.

One factor that makes the French not focus too much on quantity is they are heavily taxed. This contrasts with India, China or even Korea and Japan where taxes are symbolic. Taxes have provided a disincentive for French companies to focus on quantity of exports, which leads to less revenue, and the vicious circle goes on.

This was a pretty long chat on France. Hope you enjoyed it.


      
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