What did we do to deserve this?

Screen shot 2014-05-19 at 8.45.46 AMI didn’t write all last week because over the weekend I had had a very unpleasant, somewhat typical French experience that I needed to share. Having just written the Conasse article, I wasn’t sure how, without sounding totally down on the French. And then I saw the very popular, hysterically funny, incredibly brilliant film, Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au bon dieu?*, and I had my solution.

Last Saturday night Mr French and I were in Deauville enjoying a weekend by the sea. For dinner he had invited me to Augusto Chez Laurent (fantastic restaurant, by the way…), the lobster king. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a thing for lobster and in Greece, I discovered that a decadent plate of lobster may inspire total strangers to speak to you. Which is what happened during our dinner. Unfortunately, this stranger was a total jerk. Through the course of the evening he interrupted our meal several times, which is not typically French, at all. In fact, this never happens, which show just how inappropriate this guy was. He was trying to be friendly and make casual chitchat, clearly uninterested in a conversation with his wife. But his conversation was unbearable. Beyond insulting his wife and belittling Americans, he said something racist.

My face froze, I literally dropped my fork, lobster juice splashing over my very elegant bib. Mr French saw my hackles rise and caressed me under the table with his foot. I am not French, so intelligent insults come slowly to me and I was having a lovely evening I did not want to destroy with a fight with a man I was not going to educate. So I shut up. Which made me very angry with myself for the week to come. And left me thinking a lot about racism in France.

The French can be racist. So can Americans, and Asians, and every other population on earth. But living in liberal, politically correct San Francisco, it is not something I heard on a regular basis. In Paris, I hear it weekly. Sometimes, I will hear it coming from the mouths of guests in my own home. And it shocks me. Even more disconcerting, the National Socialist (yup, the origin of the word nazi) party is alive and well in France, a welcome part of the politically relevant Front National, that currently has several elected mayors in the country. There are people in France who are proud to declare their intolerance.

I’ve heard it on the bus, when a woman insulted the Chinese because my Asian friend was blocking her way. I’ve heard it at school meetings when teachers discuss the Portuguese students. I hear it on the news as city halls try to banish kosher/hallal options in school cafeterias, but defend serving fish on Friday for their Catholic students.

When I applied for French citizenship my (at the time) mother-in-law was missing some important documents related to her parents’ immigration from Turkey. “Oh, you people,” decried the exasperated clerk, speaking to me like I was an idiot “what is wrong with you? Those papers were im-por-tant, I can’t believe how many of you lost your papers!”. She had a point. “Us” people were extremely negligent with our paperwork back in the 40’s, ignorantly “loosing” government documents that marked “us” people as Jews. So short sighted to have save lives, not paperwork.

Sometimes I wonder if vocal racism isn’t a good thing. At least we know who the racists are. In the US, KKK members keep a low profile. You’d never know your mayor belonged to their club unless you were a member yourself. There may be actively racist senators in the US, and the voters would never know. In France, we know what we’re voting for.

While living here, I have seen that talking about it openly creates dialogue, which can lead to education and a new way of thinking. Mother French was genuinely sad for me when she learned that I hadn’t celebrated Christmas before meeting Mr French. Living in a remote part of France where everyone is just like her, it had never occurred to her that other cultures were quite happy with their own traditions and didn’t miss hers at all.

Which is what brings me to Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au bon dieu?. Clearly, a team of folk much more creative than myself, has been grappling with the same issue recently and they came up with a movie that treats the subject with great humour and intelligence. A bourgeois, Catholic family from the Loire has four gorgeous daughters. The first marries Rachid. A French, integrated Muslim with Algerian heritage. The second is wed to David, a Sephardic Jew and the third marries Chao Ling. Imagine the parents’ ecstasy when the youngest announces her engagement to a Catholic man. At last, there will be a church wedding! Only, guess what? Charles is not French. He’s African.

The jokes are about food, religion, culture, with one minority teasing another, or two ganging up against another. They all come off as funny without being insulting, a remarkably difficult balance. Mr French claims there was literally a laugh a minute. I was too busy laughing to take note. What I did notice was that we; the Jewish-Italian me and the very French Mr French, are the very incarnation of this movie, and life in France today, with everyone waking up to race relations and trying to understand what is means for the future of their children and their grandchildren. It is about the French realizing that not everyone is thrilled to have a French daughter-in-law, and that living together respectfully enriches us all. I don’t know how this film could ever come out in the US. It is anything but politically correct and the slang would be hard to interpret, as would the local stereotypes. But if it ever does come your way, I recommend you go. It is wonderful, enlightening and healing.

* What did we do to deserve this? but literally, What did we do to the good lord?

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3 thoughts on “What did we do to deserve this?

  1. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the word “Portuguese” used as an insult in French. It was my first year in France, in 1975! The worst cases of racism occurred at the Préfecture each time I went to have my resident visa renewed (I am now French, so don’t have to put up with it any more). The people behind the counter would comment very rudely on the different nationalities present. I used to leave the préfecture in tears until one day, I started helping the North Africans and Black Africans present to stand up for their rights.
    But the day my ex-husband’s brother (French), who lived in South Africa, said that you could call bushmen human beings if you called dogs human beings, I walked out of the room and never spoke to him again. No one else said anything.
    I shall go and see the film. Our neighbours in Blois told us the story. We will soon have a Madagascan daughter-in-law which I imagine could cause reactions among some of the French family but there is already an adopted Malian who has paved the way.

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