Again, one of the highlights (very few other highlights, believe me) of being less mobile is that I get to read the newspaper before anyone else. Today, I have read most sections of the New York Times before 5:00 pm.
An interesting article about the alarming growth of Islamic militants in Great Britain has caught my attention.
The British Prime Minister blames Britain for having encouraged Muslim and other immigrant groups to live together, without little or no contact with their new country.
It reminded me of a conversation I had, two years ago in Paris, with a taxi driver born in France but from Moroccan origins. His grandfather had worked in France after World War Two to help rebuild the ravaged country. He only left to marry a young girl in his native Morocco, but returned to France and spent the rest of his life in a Parisian suburb with other men and their families, all coming from North Africa.
We had this conversation a few months after the violent riots that took place in the Parisian suburbs and on the outskirts of the major French cities in the fall 2009. I had then a hard time to understand the reasons that pushed young people, and especially men born in France, to destroy cars and stores and terrorize residents.
After all, I am also an immigrant who left my native country for an unknown land, and culture. My kids, first generation Americans, have never been exposed to discrimination or prejudice. So why is it so hard for the second or even third generation French-born kids to fit in?
For the taxi driver, the difficulty came from the concentration of immigrants in densely polluted neighborhoods.
“People settle where others have established roots based on the old country lifestyle and before long it’s too late to go anywhere else.” He paused as he drove along busy streets. “The younger people end up stuck between two cultures they know little about. The country their parents and grandparents talk with nostalgia is only a name for them and France a place they don’t know better.”
I listened to his comments, wondering how it could be so different in the United States where we celebrate diversity and yet share a common identity.
“But,” he added. “People have also choices. I left the banlieue (suburbs) for Paris. For my kids, I knew it was important so they wouldn’t go to school only with kids whose grandparents or great-grandparents came from North Africa.”
The British Prime Minister blames Britain for allowing values that have nothing to do with the values of human rights, democracy, social integration, and equality for all before the law. He talks of passive tolerance and it is certainly something that is happening in France as well.
My family leaves in a quiet part of Normandy. They see less of the immigration issues that affect other parts of France on a regular basis. No cars are burnt every Saturday night in their little town. However, it is happening elsewhere. But it is difficult to talk with them about it, as if avoiding the subject would make it vanish, or more importantly as if keeping the trouble makers together, isolated from the real French was the best thing to do.
As the taxi driver told me, people have choices. You can blame a country for failing to help immigrants to feel at home but immigrants must also be fair and work toward assimilation.
I can only imagine what my life would be if I had stayed in the same neighborhood with the company of other French immigrants for the last twenty years. Maybe I would have enjoyed great cuisine, but I would have missed everything about my adoptive country.
Discovering a foreign culture, mastering another language, meeting new people take time and energy but also guarantee assimilation. It can be successful if both immigrants and natives play their role.