Beth Epstein: Thinking with Diversity in a Paris Suburb

Thinking with Diversity in a Paris Suburb

Beth Epstein, Academic Director, New York University Paris

In 2019, I returned to the culturally plural city outside of Paris where I had conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the mid-1990s.  I went there to see what had changed, and to grasp how a deep and difficult debate about racially-inflected social tensions that started to gain intensity in France in the early 2000s was being experienced there, “on the ground,” in a city regularly cast as one of the many “troubled suburbs” that so frequently make headline news.  Reaching, at times, a fever pitch, this debate turns on the merits and/or shortcomings of the French Republican project and its universal ideal, and sets those who seek to re-frame articulations of French identity via an interrogation of the state’s official “race-blind” stance against others who are deeply suspicious of the essentialising dangers they see lying latent in such claims.  It is a controversy that plays out most ostensibly in relation to the country’s disadvantaged suburbs, that many see as succumbing to divisive pressures, and that distil the preoccupations of an anxious France. 

It was with some surprise then, as I delved back into the activities of everyday life in the city where I have focused my work, that I found few if any manifestations of this debate.  Rather, I was witness to an enthusiastic embrace of diversity as a way of building community and connecting to the world that both engaged with, and surpassed, the usual narrative of integration as it is told in France.  This “quiet but significant cultural pluralism,” as the anthropologist Andrew Newman puts it (2015:195), constitutes an integral yet overlooked piece of everyday life in this city and other “mixed” neighborhoods of urban France.  Shaking up established orders of separation, it puts forth a vision that merits attention, if for no other reason than for the ideal of human connection that it projects, and for the limits of national anxieties that it reveals.

By way of example, I offer glimpses from a series of happenings that took place during the city’s annual Festival des Solidarités.  A fortnight of events that included dances, film screenings, lectures, banquets and performances, the Festival mobilised several dozens of volunteers from numerous local non-profit groups and attracted hundreds of participants.  Whereas 25 years ago, planning for this event—limited then to one day—was riddled with anxiety about how to build bridges across the diversity that is so constitutive of the city’s population, planning for the event in 2019 was, in contrast, an enthusiastic and inclusive affair.  The Festival opened with a ceremony to mark a new agreement with Hué, Vietnam, which joined Thiès, Senegal and Saffa, Palestine as an official twinned-city partner.  Delegates from all three cities were present. The Deputy Mayor who oversees these agreements, himself from Senegal, spoke about the importance for the city’s young people, who have ties that reach back to countries from around the world (142 nationalities, he said), to see their origins reflected in these exchanges.  Other events included performances by a group of dancers from Saffa who stayed for the duration of the events—emotions ran high when they and their high-school-aged hosts gathered to say good-bye, a farewell underscored by awareness of the strenuous conditions to which the Palestinian youth would be returning; the screening of a film about the work of the Nobel peace prize recipient Dr. Denis Mukwege, organised by a woman who had created an organisation to aid war orphans in the Democratic Republic of Congo—many of the people in attendance knew her story: about her courageous trips to Congo to provide support to people in her village, about her sister and sister’s children who had been killed, about the risks she takes every time she travels there.  “If I’m here this evening it’s thanks to you,” she said, signalling a few volunteers in the room; the projection of a film created by local residents about family and the passing on of traditions, that gave rise to moving displays of emotion—a Cambodian woman who had participated in the film choked with feeling.  “I left during the Khmer Rouge,” she said. “I can’t say more…”.  A middle-aged man sitting in front of me raised his hand.  “I am from Haiti,” he said.  “I’m not sure I have my place here.  My mother disappeared during the earthquake.  I don’t have any trace of her,” he said, “not even a hair,” and he started to cry

Like other such occasions the Festival served as an opportunity for residents and local officials to proudly proclaim their city’s diversity as a source of strength—“diversity is our DNA,” they said, a common refrain.  It became an opportunity for residents to spurn dominant images of the suburbs that focus on immigration and economic hardship only, and to engage in humanitarian actions that bear witness both to their own displacement and to their desire to maintain meaningful ties to their erstwhile homes.  Most important, the Festival’s events gave way to significant moments of connection as people found transcendent sources of common ground.  The Festival allowed participants to build on and give expression to a vision that moves past the parochial divisions that limit debates about diversity in France, and to enact a lived experience of plurality that is both tied to local forms of engagement and that extends beyond the polemics of national debate.  That such moments are seldom conveyed in portrayals of the troubled suburbs begs explanation: perhaps it is because they do not fit with conventional expectation, and because in unsettling the sharp division between the central city and its outskirts, they expose the myth of the social and spatial cordoning off of “difference” on which such expectations depend.

REFERENCES

Newman, Andrew (2015)  Landscape of Discontent: Urban Sustainability in Immigrant Paris.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

This blog post is based on a presentation at the AHN EASA 2020 Panel “Locating the Humanitarian Impulse: Questions of Scale and Space” (Session II – P005b – 22 July 2020, 14:00 – 15:45). The commentary on the presentation and panel session by Čarna Brković can be read here.

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