Saturday, July 08, 2006

An American in Paris.

Here's the post of a friend of ours who has just moved to Paris. He's American with a multicultural background and is married to a German woman and previously lived in Greece among other places. We'll call him D. I think that this excerpt of his email is worth putting on our blog. I asked him if it'd be OK to "publish" it and he agreed. Hopefully we'll have more of his views in the next few months as he has many questions which are directly connected to our concerns on this blog:

France is clearly a multicultural, multiracial society. I realize that this is probably more applicable in the big cities, but in general I think it's a fair statement. Unlike the US, this diversity has been initially driven by colonial history. Thus the largest and most visible immigrant groups seem to be West African and North African, and members of these communities have been here for up to several generations.

On previous brief visits to France, and Paris in particular, I have always observed that groups of friends seemed to be quite diverse especially amongst teenagers or young adults. It also seemed that 2nd or 3rd generation immigrant groups were more likely to have a wider and more French social circle than newer immigrants. By French I refer to people who can claim to be salt of this land, with ancestors going back hundreds or thousands of years.

In summary, I've always thought that of France as a country with a long history of immigration, and a diverse society that is either well integrated from the point of view of the 2nd, 3rd generation and beyond, or slowly etting there from the point of view of the new arrivals. Last years riots and the brief success of Jean-Marie Le Pen some years back got me thinking about whether I was really off on my view of France. Among other things, I'm certainly looking forward to exploring this subject over the next couple of years.

Initial impressions have done nothing to help me understand this paradox. However, I am starting to formulate a theory which I would like to explore over the coming weeks. I observe that teenagers and young adults do indeed have a wide circle of friends from various backgrounds and there does not appear to be any overt or covert discrimination at that level. I have no reference in private industry other than my company and the companies that we deal with, all of which are large multinationals. A walk through the cafeteria at lunch time reveals a very diverse workforce and the organization chart shows immigrants in very senior positions. On the other hand, my first few contacts with a French state have been a completely different experience. It seems to be very "French", with very little immigrant presence at decision making level. I watch the news and there doesn't seem to be a single immigrant face in government. What gives? Could it be that the French public sector, the largest employer in the country, has made no effort to recognize that it operates in a diverse society? Could it be that the friendship that exists amongst youngsters gives way to cordial contact once the immigrants in those groups start hitting the proverbial glass ceiling? The immigrants, even if they're 2nd or 3rd generation and feel completely French, perhaps become a bit bitter. The "French" don't feel the glass ceiling and they can't understand the bitterness. Maybe they don't want to understand. In any case, it sucks to have bitter friends and it's just easier to get on with your own life. The initial diverse group of friends becomes a segregated group of adults and the viscious cycle begins. The cycle is never broken because those in charge of the system aren't willing to admit that it's flawed.

Perhaps I'll find some answers as Paris becomes home for the next few months or years....

D.



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