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'Where are you from?' How a little question raises a big issue in France

Understanding others

Part 8 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.'

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    Simon Worou, mayor of the village of Sainte-Juliette-sur-Viaur, France, stands in front of his town hall. Mr. Worou, who is originally from Togo, is the first person from Africa to be elected mayor in the Aveyron region, in south central France.
    Colette Davidson
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A tractor rumbles down the village street as chickens cluck in a nearby garden and a goat nibbles on a roadside tree. The only business here, a small café, is shuttered for the day. This small town of 601 people in deepest rural France is hardly the place you would expect to find one of the country’s few black politicians.

Simon Worou, originally from Togo, is the first person from Africa to be elected mayor in the Aveyron region, in south central France. When he first came here 20 years ago to meet his future wife’s grandparents, they had never met a black man before. But since he settled down, he has felt nothing but full acceptance here.

“I’ve been in this town longer than a lot of people here,” says Mr. Worou, opening the double doors to the town hall to prepare for an afternoon meeting. “Now, when people see me, they see me – Simon – not a black person.”

Worou’s presence here illustrates how radically France has changed in recent decades from an ethnically homogenous society into one of Europe’s most diverse nations. His election by the villagers as their mayor is a pointer to greater acceptance of immigrants by traditional white, European French citizens.

But standard French values and principles are not shifting to make room for the varied cultural traditions of its six million strong immigrant-descended population. And recent debates about those values, the nature of French identity, and the integration of immigrant youths have done more to divide society than unite it.

“The reality of France has changed even if the image is still of a white man with a beret and a baguette,” says Marie-Hélène Bacqué, a sociologist and urbanist at the University of Paris Ouest. “France is very multicultural with people coming from very diverse places. One of the challenges now is how to take this diversity into account.”

'Where are you from?'

Lifelong Sainte-Juliette residents Serge Bodou and Hervé Mader, loading a dying 4x4 onto a car trailer, say they found nothing shocking about Worou’s election.

“There are people in town who hide in their yards when you walk by, but Simon always says hello, he’s everywhere and participates in everything,” says Bodou. “Why should we have a problem with him being mayor? He’s French.”

“Being French,” however, is fraught with emotion in France, where the intellectual and political establishment is united around secularism as a foundation stone of French identity. That means no concessions to cultural or religious traditions – no halal meat at school cafeterias, for example – a stand that many French Muslims regard as hostile and intolerant.

Professor Bacqué says that the debate has been distorted because it takes identity as a fixed and stable concept. “Identity is always moving and changing,” she says. “There’s not just one French identity. There have always been many,” though they have rarely been acknowledged.

“Some people say that the people in the suburbs don’t feel French, but it’s that they don’t feel recognized,” says Bacqué. “The question is how to exist in this society with your identity and your culture.”

Immigration is not new in France, though the nation’s struggle to integrate its recent Muslim immigrants has brought the issue to the fore. Millions of newcomers arrived after World War II and in the wake of Algeria’s independence in 1962, took French citizenship and started families.

Those families may have been in France, and French nationals, for three generations, but if they are not white they are often referred to as “immigrants,” says Erik Bleich, a professor of political science at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Professor Bleich spent a year in France researching the strong pressure on immigrant families to adopt French secularism, language, and political culture – unlike the US, where people can often hold onto their cultural customs. He found that a majority of French descendants of immigrants told researchers that they felt very French. This was true even for Muslims, although they were subject to more than 400 Islamophobic threats or actions in 2015, according to government figures.

“However, the problem came when these people encountered [certain French people] who didn’t see them as French, asking them, ‘where are you really from?’” he says. “All it takes is one person to treat you differently for you to feel not fully French and it can really stick with you.”

Worou, who has become a naturalized French citizen and mastered the local Aveyron accent, says he regularly faces the “where are you from” question.

“This question is often asked of people who come here from outside the region,” he says, “but if you’re a person of color, you understand it differently.”

Race and égalité

While Worou remains the only person of color in Sainte-Juliette, ethnic diversity is spreading across France. In nearby Rodez, a mid-sized city of around 24,000 people, immigrants represent 7.5 percent of the population, slightly below the national average of 8.8 percent, according to the most recent data from national French statistics bureau INSEE.

But INSEE cannot tell the ethnic origins of these immigrants. Identifying citizens by their race is illegal in France – a reaction to the use that the authorities made of such data during World War II to identify and deport Jews. Distinguishing among citizens on the basis of their ethnic origins is also seen as an assault on the founding republican principle of égalité, and thus outlawed.

This has made discussions about race difficult, says Bleich.

“The upside of not having race statistics is that you don’t have people that are overly aware of their racial identity and dealing with these small negotiations as they go through life as we do in the US,” says Bleich. “But the negative is, you’re not able to express to the public at large about the life chances of people across religious and racial lines.”

Those social trends may have been invisible to statisticians, but they exploded into the public consciousness in January 2015 when three French-born second-generation immigrants killed 15 people in separate attacks on a satirical magazine and a kosher delicatessen. The terrorist attacks sparked an anguished debate over the failures of French social and economic integration policies.

The government cannot legally measure the problem, but it knows it exists: it is harder to find a job or a house if you are black or brown than if you are white. The authorities recently launched an advertising campaign against job discrimination and set up a hotline to report racial discrimination.

Back in Sainte-Juliette-sur-Viaur, the issue of race is almost all but forgotten – except when Mayor Worou has to go to a regional meeting of mayors in the Aveyron. “I’m always the only non-white mayor out of the 300 in the Aveyron,” he smiles. “Sometimes people in neighboring towns still tell me they’re shocked I was elected.”

But it’s not a shock for most people in Sainte-Juliette, who laugh when asked whether it was a surprise for a black man to be named mayor.

“It’s the person that counts, not the race,” says local resident Dominique Coufinhal, as she lays a concrete slab for a garden shed. “Why should it matter if he’s black? He can do the job and he does it well.”

This was part 8 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.

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