IMMIGRATION: Life in France through two different pairs of eyes

Cet article est disponible en français ici

This article is available in audio form, read and audiodescribed by the authors.

[…] and the story of every immigrant that has moved from one continent to another is always the same, regardless of their religion or skin color (…) Their perseverance to get from one place to another, to make their lives better, is one that is reflected through millions upon millions every year.

Grant, interviewee – a young white man from Australia

The western world feeds our desires and ignores our cries for hunger, we are the generation of African born into globalization. Attracted, then screened, rejected, hopeless. We are the Malgré-nous of the journey .

Salie, African woman from Senegal, and the main character of Fatou Diome’s semi-autobiographical novel The Belly of the Atlantic

Did you know that 3% of the world’s population, meaning more than 215 million people, live in a country other than the one they were born in? People leave their countries for a variety of reasons, from rejoining their family members and finishing their studies to seeking a better quality of life. In 2018, there were 6.5 million immigrants living in France, making up a sizable 9.7% of the country’s total population of 67 million. With so many different people having to co-exist in the same environment, fixed and oversimplified images of a community or a group of people are bound to emerge from the cultural clash. Sometimes they can paint a cultural group in a positive light, though often the most entrenched and insidious stereotypes are born. How do they affect people’s stories and experiences as immigrants? 

In an interview, Grant speaks of his experience with cultural stereotypes as a psychologist in the army. He reflects on his privileged position as a white Australian, saying that “we don’t have the unlucky or unfortunate stereotypes other nations have, which they obviously don’t deserve. Good stereotypes are helpful to us Australians … we are said to be hard workers, clean, we get the job done”. 

Grant believes that stereotypes do actually change the course of immigrants’ lives. For him, there has not been any significant gap between the dream of migrating to another country and the actual experience. Grant does not feel homesick at all, and even plans to apply for French citizenship. This goal is accessible to him due to his country of origin and education level, despite the fact that he does not speak French very well. When Grant speaks, he is immediately marked as a foreigner, but he is not judged harshly, and he retains his space as a respected member of French society. For fortunate people like Grant, stereotypes make the social aspects of life in a foreign country much easier. However, even if stereotypes have played in his favor, he is aware of their danger and the negative impact they can have on an immigrant’s life. Salie’s story is an example of the way that stereotypes can complicate the experience of immigration.

© The Belly of the Atlantic by Fatou Diome. The novel tell the story of Salie, a senegalese native who narrates her journey as an immigrant.

In the semi-autobiographical novel The Belly of the Atlantic, after having excellent grades in secondary school, Salie immigrates to France to pursue a higher education. She marries a white French man, but the marriage does not last because his family is opposed to their union. After the divorce, she must take on part-time work as a cleaning lady in order to pay for her studies. Her life as an immigrant feels worlds away from Grant’s. Their individual identities are clearly at the core of this difference. Indeed, she is from a modest background and grew up in a developing country that had little to offer her. Her life in France is not much better. She has to face poverty and is now exposed to racism against Senegalese people. Unlike Grant, Salie’s experience of immigration is a struggle, not a dream come true. Although the story is told from the perspective of a fictional character, the events within are based upon the real-life experiences of the novel’s author. Therefore, many people can identify with this character. 

There are, however, some similarities between Grant and Salie stories. Both of them relocated for practical reasons, one for her education, and the other, because he had to leave the UK due to Brexit, but wanted to remain in Europe. Just like Salie, Grant immigrated to France alone, and they both struggled with the language barrier, Salie because she has a very strong Senegalese accent and Grant because he doesn’t speak French very well. Additionally, neither of them ever plan to go back to their home countries. But the fact remains that Grant seems to be at peace with his choice to relocate. When, Salie is completely torn by the reality of her life; while not entirely at ease or at home in France, her half-improved status as a “French” student prohibits her from returning to her home country.  She says: “I’m a stranger, everywhere”.

What really conditioned Grant and Salie’s stories  in the way society perceives them is being part of a particular group. Who they are as individuals is irrelevant to their experiences of immigration. Depending on your sociocultural identity, people  see you as a Grant, or as a Salie. Posing inappropriate judgment and assumptions on a person or a given community is a widespread habit that has always been socially tolerable. Prejudice can take many forms, such as Chinese people getting randomly insulted in times of Covid. On social media, they are called names like “disease carriers”. 

COVID-19 is by far the most common theme associated with China by the French public in 2020, emphasizing the link between the pandemic and its country of origin. Stereotypes are not only revolting, they ruin lives.

Authors:

Noelly Rocher 

Alexandra Dina 

Shelby Cane 

Imad Baazizi 

References:

https://www.ined.fr/en/everything_about_population

https://www.ifri.org/en/publications

https://brunocatalano.com/sculpture-bronze/bruno-catalano-a-propos.php

https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/book-review/fatou-diomes-the-belly-of-the-atlantic

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