I have lived all my adult life away from France, including the last 14 years in the United States. This does not make me less French but it certainly makes me French differently. If you asked me to briefly describe my background I would say: French, educated middle class, and raised by parents who came of age in the paradigm-shifting 1960s. Likely because I don’t live in my birth country I feel defined by my nationality even more than by the other two dimensions.
I feel profoundly French and attached to France. I speak French at home everyday (thank you, Minette). I cook and eat French food — I even sell French food. I read French books and watch French films. I follow the news in the French press and on the French radio (thank you, technology) and talking with my folks back home. I vote in French elections open to citizens living abroad. I go to France at least once a year.
I think my bond with France’s past and her traditions is indissoluble. But I often feel that my relationship with today’s France is on less solid ground. The hints can seem trivial: pop culture references I don’t grasp; “celebrities” I have never heard about; new words and expressions I don’t understand — and enjoy learning from my brother’s kids. When I return to France, I feel instantly at home in my familiar places but French society as a whole has somehow become elusive. In other words, I have lost a fluid understanding of where my native country is at and how it is evolving.
Ironically, one of the things not so easy for me to grasp is how multicultural France has become. First and second generation immigrants (most of which are French citizens) make up nearly 20% of France’s population. More than half of them have their family roots outside Europe. Many of them are Muslim. Islam is France’s second religion, far behind Catholicism and far ahead of Protestant denominations altogether.
This means France is now a different country from the one I once lived in. The rise of Muslim fundamentalism and the terrorist attacks that have struck France in recent years (some of which were perpetrated by French citizens born to first generation immigrants) are the obvious dark facet of this fact. On the bright side though, social integration is ongoing: France is Europe’s large country with the highest rate of mixed marriages; you come across people with Northern African names in an increasing variety of skilled jobs and trades; and the French consistently claim Northern African couscous as one of their favorite dishes.
I was not around as these and other societal changes happened and so it seems that I have not fully taken them in, even those I find overall positive. It sometimes makes me sad. I know our growing apart is real and not something I can undo at this point. There are parts of France that will forever be with me and there are other parts that have started escaping me.
I wonder how the distance between today’s France and me, and between today’s India and Appa for that matter, will shape Minette’s relation to her heritages. As much as we want her to feel at home in our respective native countries, there is no denying that they can only be less familiar to her than they are to us. Unless she decides at a later point in her life to live there long enough to gain her own intimate understanding. And that story will be hers to craft and tell…