It was just after midnight as I walked into my house in France after a great Friday evening out with a friend. We had seen a performance piece by two actors on the subject of war, which ridiculed the most absurd aspects of it, then wandered aimlessly around town. When I eventually walked in my door and checked my phone for the first time in hours, I had a bunch of messages from former co-workers in the U.S., friends, and family asking if I was okay and if I was safe and if I knew what was going on. The answer? No, I had no idea what was going on and consequently no idea if I was safe. I was completely rattled and immediately got on my computer and started reading the news. Attacks in Paris. Hostage Situation. Number of Dead Unknown.
I couldn’t sleep. I responded to friends and family letting them know I was safely 450 miles from Paris. I left the BBC live feed running in the background and refreshed the browser every few minutes while I pretended to watch mindless TV on my computer. I think I eventually passed out sometime after 3 a.m., sleeping fitfully for a few hours. Paris, the capital of this lovely country I’m lucky to currently call home, had been attacked. An overall sense of discomfort encompassed my household and city.
It was shocking for all of us here in France, expats and natives alike, but there was a silver lining in the fact that everyone came together in solidarity. There were peace marches and the fountain in the Place de la Comédie, a central location in Montpellier, was (and still is) surrounded by candles, flowers, poems, letters, signs for peace.
During the subsequent weeks, I used the event as an opportunity to foster positive discussion with my students. I teach English to teenagers (8th graders to 12th graders) with varying levels of English skills and comprehension. At first, we discussed what happened and how they felt about the attacks. They said that it was “horrible,” “tragic,” and expressed their sympathy for the people of Paris. Digging a little deeper, though, we were able to really discuss what had happened. I asked them who was at fault; many answered “Daesh” (the French name for ISIS), but some surprised me by responding “all of us.”
I asked them what we can do and was disheartened by hearing “nothing” from some students. As the week progressed, and it was clear France would be retaliating with violence, our conversations became more complex and heated. Terrorism and war are complicated and challenging topics, and my students provided great insight into what it means for them to be French in this time of fear and confusion: unity, solidarity, and trust in the governing powers.
What most people don’t know is that France has a tumultuous history of internal conflict. I’m referring specifically to the French-Algerian conflict in the early 1960’s, when France’s closest colony – both geographically (just across the Mediterranean Sea), and culturally (France considered Algeria to be a part of the mainland in a way it did not with other colonies) – fought aggressively and violently for independence. This rupture caused a mass movement of citizens: supporters of Algerian independence left France, and any descendants of French colonists in Algeria fled for the mainland at the threat of torture and death. Unfortunately for the latter group, they stood at an uncomfortable juxtaposition between being French and Algerian. They were kicked out of Algeria for being “French,” but were feared/distrusted in France. The French tend to cope with difference through assimilation, and outliers/oddities simply aren’t accepted.
Now, more than forty years later, the complexity of being foreign or different in France continues to pose problems. A fear of the other (xenophobia) persists predominantly, but not exclusively, targeted towards groups of Arabic or African descent; any expression of individual religious belief is banned in French public schools, which can include any head coverings or a cross; and many cities are segregated, including my own. As an example, I live in the “Arabic” part of town and I have been told I need to be careful as a single, white woman where I live, especially now. It’s definitely easy for older generations to jump to conclusions and seek scapegoats in times of fear and danger, but fortunately, the younger generations continue to provide hope. My students made it clear that the attacks were the work of extremists. They told me the terrorists are not representative of Muslims and that fear is not the answer to what happened. I’m reassured by their thoughtfulness, openness, and honesty.
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About the author:
Bethany Huntley is an adventurous gal who has lived in all four corners of the US. She went to middle school and high school in New Hampshire, and still calls it home in the figurative sense, but has spent the last few years living in the Pacific Northwest. She graduated from Willamette University with a degree in English and French. During her college experience, she studied abroad in Martinique, a French overseas department in the Caribbean, and did a semester at Montana State University studying Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems. Her interests include, but are not limited to, food, dogs, France, wine, and adventures.