Chase Francoeur ’17 – During my first month in the French capital I spent much of my time visiting the typical tourist areas with the other students in my class, places such as Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, Versailles, Tour d’Eiffel, and Arc de Triomphe. On the weekends my program would take us outside of the city to visit other sites such as the home and gardens of French painter Claude Monet in Giverny, the wine cellars of Tours and the southern city of Toulouse where the Cassoulet (a meat stew) could rival any American chili.
After settling in and getting the rush of exploring a new city and new country out of our system, our classes began to delve into the problems that existed in not only Paris but also France as a whole as they battled against many of the very same things that headline our own newspapers and media. Place de la République, a plaza in central Paris, was a shining example of the turmoil surrounding the country in relation to immigration, racism, police brutality and more. The plaza only two years ago was a bustling place for youth to hang out and spend their summer afternoons, but is now the focal point for violent protests, even forcing the metro station in the middle of the square to be indefinitely closed as it has become so dangerous after sunset. As we shifted to seeing past the façade that is a beautiful, bustling city we began to identify the daily hardships that many faced, many of them first-hand through our weekly class excursions.
The recent terror attacks, one of which occurred on Bastille Day (July 14th), were almost commonplace, as were the protests as France struggled to maintain control over a mass of immigrants entering the country through Marseille from countries bordering the Mediterranean. The task was made even more difficult when considering many citizens were also unhappy with the government as it pushed labor agendas that inch closer towards capitalism in a strongly socialist country.
In Calais, the closest city to the United Kingdom, a refugee camp nicknamed ‘The Jungle’ because of its harsh conditions, is home to over 7,500 refugees. Crowding many of the disbanded railroads of Paris, Roma communities, known to us more commonly as gypsies, have been present for well over a decade despite walls of plywood and tarpaulin roofs that are held down with anything they can get there hands on.
Although many of the children in these communities were born in France they are not considered French citizens as if you are born to parents of a foreign nationality you are considered a foreigner until you are 18, at which point you can declare as a French national. Even upon declaring as a French national, many still experience unofficial discrimination from the government as decades of intolerance have led to inequality, which directly contradicts the country’s motto, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”, or “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”
Although France utilizes laïcité, religious neutrality in public spaces, and separation of church and state, the system faces constant harsh criticisms. In 2011 the government banned women from wearing the burqa or niqab in public, a measure that many believe interferes with the ability to practice Islam. Religious symbols were also banned from public schools in 2004, and as a result many religious families moved their children to private education, which has caused a slight divide in the culture as these children do not grow up with exposure to other religions and their corresponding cultures and have a higher prevalence of intolerance towards them.
When one thinks of France we often picture a short man dressed in a black and white horizontally striped shirt, a red beret and sporting a well-maintained moustache while holding a bottle of red wine in one hand and the legendary ‘baguette’ in the other. Or, if you don’t picture that, maybe it is of a group having a picnic in the countryside with a platter of various cheeses, breads, and a few bottles of wine. After 10 weeks exploring and studying in various parts of France (Bordeaux, Caen, Chantilles, Paris, Toulouse, Tours) thanks to the Rudolph’s generous donations, I have discovered for myself how the culture and daily life of the French is so drastically different from what I personally once thought. My experiences have taught me that while you can be in an area for even a few months, you will still be blind to much of the society and culture and if you seek to be able to truly immerse yourself you must be ready to break down barriers, leave behind preconceived notions and experience difficulties and defeat.