Posts Tagged France
Like all tools, a concept must be handled dextrously and advisedly, lest it proves dangerous and damages more than it mends. My preceding article could just as well have been entitled “On the good and bad usage of the concept of diversity” — a concept precious to me, and one that often recurs in my writing, given the great importance I attach to cultural and linguistic diversity, as well as to the diversity of living species.
Following this line of thought, this article could just as well be entitled “On the good and bad usage of the concept of francophonie”. When the concept was begotten in the 1960s, it was an excellent thing. France and her former dependencies were anxious to move past the traumas of the colonial era towards a consentient alliance, founded on the most solid and highest ground there is, that of a common language. No longer would there be colonists and natives; no longer would French ancestry be a condition of entry into the club. From Brazzaville to Phnom Penh, Lyon to Montreal, Bucharest to Port-au-Prince, all those who “shared the French language”, those who had been born in the bosom of the French-speaking world as much as those who had adopted it — and even those who felt they had been subjected to it — found themselves henceforth equal, all brothers in the francophone world, united by the sacred bonds of language, which are scarcely less indivisible than those of soil or blood.
The semantic drift occurred afterwards. I use the word ‘drift’ here because there was no pernicious intent behind it. Indeed, from the moment the French-speaking world had rallied together, francophone institutions had been established and francophone summits held, it seemed natural that we start talking about francophone literature and francophone authors. What, after all, is a francophone author? A person who writes in French. This is patently obvious, at least in theory. Yet the meaning was immediately perverted, even overturned.
In France, the word ‘francophones’ should have meant ‘us’; instead, it has come to mean ‘them’, ‘the others’, ‘foreigners’, ‘people from our former colonies’. And as the meaning drifted, our identities became indurated and old reflexes returned. Few would think to call Flaubert or Celine ‘francophones’; and even those writers who come from abroad are quickly categorised as French writers, so long as they haven’t come from a Third World country; I have never heard Apollinaire or Cioran described as ‘francophones’.
In an attempt to find the factors that govern this divide, I recently itemized a long list of names. I would be ashamed to write the results I found. Even if I listed only the factors themselves, I would feel stained. They contain discriminatory subtleties unworthy of France, unworthy of her ideals, unworthy of her place in the history of ideas and of nations.
Should I reel off a few examples? No, I will stop here. I will say only in a low, solemn but firm voice: let us put an end to this absurdity! Let us use the word ‘‘francophonie” only in the diplomatic and geopolitical sphere; let us make it our habit to say ‘French-language writers’ without rummaging through their identity papers and baggage, or delving into their first names or their skin. Let us consider our earlier blunders as an unhappy detour, a regrettable misunderstanding, and let us set off again on the right foot.
Doing so would align us with what is practiced in the most widespread and conquering of linguistic spaces, those of the English and Spanish languages, which know no segregation of this kind. No one would think to distinguish Spanish writers from ‘hispanophones’, or the English from ‘anglophones’. There are simply English-language writers, whether they are black or blond, or whether they hail from Birmingham, Dublin, Sydney, Calcutta or Johannesburg; and there are Spanish-language writers, whether they are Andalusians, Chileans, Columbians or Guatemalans.
The basis for the differences in how the question has been addressed is found not in the character of the nations in question, but rather in the facts of history and demography. England may be the birthplace of the English language, but it is the United States that nowadays sits at its centre. The existence of these two poles — to which a number of others, of varying sizes, can be added — prevents the language from becoming locked into a British-centric attitude. They same is true of Spanish, which is spoken by more people in Mexico or Argentina than it is in its mother country, a fact which, again, guards against any temptation towards Iberian centrism.
We can say that the literatures of the English and Spanish languages have acquired a global perspective thanks to the waning of the influence that the hubs once had on their former dependencies. France hasn’t experienced the same drifting apart, and so remains ensconced at the centre of its linguistic domain, without feeling the need to question or change its attitude.
Certainly, some writers occasionally unite to say that it is vital to move from a France-centred literary attitude to a global one; and that we must be done with the awkward, damaging dichotomy between ‘French’ and ‘francophone’. But old habits of expression die hard.
Do I need to point out that reconciliatory language in no way diminishes diversity? The English language contains Indian literature, Australian literature, Canadian, Nigerian and South-African literatures, Caribbean and Irish literatures, and so on. The same can be said of French. One does not write the same way in Paris as one does in Dakar, Geneva or Liege; Algiers, Casablanca or Beirut; Montreal, Quimper or Fort-de-France.
The diversity of voices will remain. Plainly, it contains a vast literary wealth. What we must abolish are those barren and discriminatory oppositions such as a literature of the North versus a literature of the South; White literature versus Black literature; a literature of the metropolis versus that of the peripheries. The French language must not, for those who have chosen it, become another place of exile.
A tale told in the United States during segregation often pops into my mind. It’s about a bus driver who would seat passengers according to the colour of their skin — white folks up front, black people down the back. One day, his boss took him aside, explained how times had changed and how he, the driver, had to change with them. When the boss saw that the driver wasn’t catching his drift, he said, “Forget that there are black people and white people. From now on, act as if we’re all blue.” So the next time the bus driver ran his route, he announced to his passengers, “It seems there are no longer any white people or black people. We’re all blue now. So you light-blue people, sit up front and you dark-blue people, move to the back.”
Some ways of thinking die hard. We try to stifle them under new terms only to see them resurface, appropriate good words and use them for the same old shameful purposes. I think of this sometimes when I see how people use just such highly regarded words — ‘diversity’, for example — here in France.
That present-day French society is composed of people descended from diverse origins and who claim allegiance to diverse groups and cultures is now incontestable. I can only be delighted by this diversity, of course, and by the fact that it is recognised, and valued. But old ideas die hard, no matter how discredited. The blunt, simple idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’, of keeping the sheep apart from the goats, has deep roots in all human societies; it cannot simply be yanked out. And it hasn’t taken long for this old idea to make the new word its own and twist it to say the opposite of what was intended.
The shift in meaning of the word ‘diversity’ has been a subtle one. That a newly formed government reflects society’s diversity is an excellent thing. In a country where cultural, ethnic, religious and social frictions related to immigration are constantly in the media’s glare, it is in my view perfectly sound to make it one’s duty to include in every government people from different backgrounds.
Where we unwittingly veer off-course is when, instead of talking about a government that reflects diversity, we start talking about ‘ministers of diversity’ or ‘representatives of diversity’. At first blush, it seems like nothing to make a fuss about. And yet the meaning of the word ‘diversity’ here has been turned upside down. Because if three or four ministers are described as reflecting diversity, then what do the rest represent? Normality? Frenchness? Identity? This is no trivial thing. Rather, it is precisely the difference between an approach that brings us together and one that divides us.
To be convinced of this, compare the following two statements: “We are all different” and “Some people among us are different”. We can agree that these don’t mean the same thing. The first sentence means, “We all belong to the same community, even if each of us is different from the rest”. The second means, “There is ‘us’, and there are ‘others’”. In the first instance, the word ‘different’ brings us together; in the second, it divides us, since it demarcates ‘us’ from people who are ‘different’.
The word ‘diversity’ suffers from the same drift in meaning. To say that a government reflects the diversity of a nation is an idea that brings us together. To say that the government includes people who represent diversity is to dismiss those people and all who resemble them as foreign. It is exactly the opposite of what was intended.
It behoves us — writers, journalists and responsible citizens first and foremost — to resist the temptation of easy options, of ready-made turns of phrase that convey damaging prejudices. It behoves us to search for the right words that fully articulate coexistence and that help build a harmonious future.