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After graduating from UCLA, I postponed the monotony of a 9 to 5 and ran away to teach English in France. The TAPIF program (essentially a fellowship with the French government) placed me at the grade school level in the tiny Provencal village (population: 6,000) of Vaison-la-Romaine. This is just about as off the grid as it gets: there’s no train station, there’s only one movie theater in town , retirees make up the vast majority of the population, and crumbling Roman ruins are the main tourist attraction. This place keeps a low profile- which is why it was especially moving to witness the Vaisonais band together and grieve the Charlie Hebdo bloodbath.
The day after the attack, I prepped a lesson in the teacher’s lounge. I overheard the principal sigh “This could happen in any country”. One of my coworkers approached me and told me in a grateful tone that Obama had offered his sympathies and American aid in tracking down the gunmen. I knew- I had been glued to my smart phone, scrolling through news apps. The most poignant moment of the workday arrived that afternoon- I asked a substitute teacher for paper (to make photocopies). His response before the class was: “Yes, you can write what you want, you can draw what you want, you can copy what you want, because today is a day about expression”.
President Hollande’s call for a national day of mourning mobilized the largest crowd I’d ever seen in Vaison -gathering exponentially more people than the village’s Tuesday market. We filed out slowly in a candlelit procession from City Hall to the central square, Place Montfort. Villagers held the ubiquitous “Je Suis Charlie” printout as well as hand-scribbled cardboard signs and left candles at a fountain that would burn into the night. While there had been pockets of chit chat (women complimenting handbags and friends phoning to meet up within the sea of heads), a wave of somber reflection took over when the mayor led us in singing La Marseillaise– France’s national anthem. I stood beside a particularly adorable crooked-toothed student of mine and fought back some tears. I’d been about his age when the twin towers fell in 2001.
This week I felt a flicker of belonging here. It has been a bumpy ride of language barriers, having roughly 3 friends under 30, and a lot of alone time. Still, the French seemed to get that I stood beside them, that my country stood beside them in this critical moment of honoring free speech. I shared the vulnerability in having one of my nation’s fundamental values attacked, and the fear in not knowing what would happen next. I checked in with a favorite teacher’s son, Hugo, who was enlisted in Paris’ gendarmerie: he assured me that it was chaud (hot) in the City of Light but that he was safe and sound. A Bordeaux-based friend texted me: “Wow many Charlie (supporters) in SF too..I’m so…”. France’s national tragedy verified a constellation of togetherness far and wide that, for a moment, dispelled my sense of estrangement living abroad.
While I offer my condolences, I’m wary of the #JeSuisCharlie aftermath. This tweet gone viral strengthened a wounded nation over the last couple of days. However, it has also become a blanket statement implying a seamless state of grief- regardless of age, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. France was broken before the attack: Hebdo journalists had plenty to critique, after all. It was broken when French citizens rattled bullets into their compatriots at the journal headquarters, and again at a kosher supermarket. France has a long way to go before it heals.
While the Kouachi brothers and their accomplice Coulibaly are criminal outliers, their violent display of Islamic fundamentalism means trouble for France’s Muslim population (roughly 5 million people) at large. A significant fraction of this population, like the gunmen, traces its ancestry back to former French colonies in Northern Africa. The very Islamaphobic, xenophobic right-wing Front National has been gaining traction in recent years, and is seizing the moment to build fear around this already ostracized group: party leader Marie Le Pen calls for tightened border patrols and a war on radical Islam (subliminally on Islam as a whole).
The Front National is the most popular political party in my region, with a stronghold in the neighboring village of Orange. That comes as a big culture shock to someone who grew up in the very liberal Bay Area. I was disturbed to have a grandpa tell me over a bite of New Year’s (galette des rois) cake, prior to the attack: “you should find a Frenchman (to date)…but not an Arab” as if they were polar opposites on the spectrum of humanity.
This is an issue spanning generations, down to the school children with whom I work. During a lesson on nationalities, a few of my first grade students resisted identifying as “French”. Instead, they requested the nationalities of former colonies where they or their parents had been born- Algeria, Tunisia, Reunion. Their teacher assured them that since they had spent the better part of their life in France, “French” would suffice.
In France, as in America, minorities feel at odds in their country that so readily trumpets democracy to the world. January 7th demonstrated that both nations will rally in a heartbeat to defend liberté. Let’s see if they can take egalité and fraternité just as seriously.