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Tuesday, October 18, 2011


I've linked several times to Arun with a View, an excellent blog with thoughtful commentary about France.  The author posts in both French and English and, while I don't always agree with him, I approach his work with respect and as open a mind as I can given that I am not always aware of my own prejudices and irrationalities.

His latest post is about a very sensitive and painful event in recent French history.  On October 17, 1961 over 200 peaceful Algerian protestors were murdered by the French police on the order of the Chief of Police, Monsieur Papon.  The context was the the bitter war over the independence of Algeria - something that is well within the living memory of both nations and still shadows debates over immigration and trade and the ongoing relationship of these two Mediterranean nations.  The Flophouse is personally touched by this since we count within our family two members born in Medea and one (now deceased) who was serving the French nation in Algeria at that time as a young officer in the French army.

It would be the height of hubris on my part to pass judgement on either side but I do have some strong (sometimes conflicting) emotions around what I see and hear.  On one side I am very protective of my French family and friends who are good people whom I love. On the other, I am an immigrant, a supporter of the "people who move around," and I feel a strong solidarity with other immigrants here, some of whom are from North Africa and who are my friends and colleagues.  From long experience I know that they are good people too.   And finally, I come from a nation that has its own checkered past (what nation-state doesn't) and has similar debates and conflicts.

Trying to see clearly though so many mixed emotions is hard.   It would be easier just to ignore the whole business and say simply that this concerns the French and the Algerians and I am not French or Algerian.  It would be easy but it's also, in my opinion, cowardly and isolationist.  Hiding behind my Carte de Resident and saying none of this concerns me not only makes me complicit though inaction but also feels like a kind of divorce from the community.  I live here and may one day wish to be a  full member of this nation.  That means that I have a responsibility to be a positive presence and not a transient ghost.

With that in mind, this is what I think.  If you don't agree with me, I am perfectly fine with being challenged.  All I ask is that we keep the debate civil and constructive.

France is a great nation with republican values for which I have enormous admiration.  Do I believe in "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité?" I can answer that with a resounding "Yes!"  Has France always lived up to her values?  Of course not and, frankly, I can't think of a single nation-state that has.  Nations are composed of people who are, by definition, imperfect and fallible.  Knowing that the French police on October 17, 1961 did something completely contrary to French values doesn't make France an evil nation, just a human one.

Nonetheless, this event (and others which are facts of history) is a moment in time that needs to be remembered.  From Arun's post, it appears that it was openly commemorated yesterday with a speech by the Mayor of Paris.  I know people on the Right will not agree but I approve wholeheartedly.  This is recognition that, on that day, an evil was done against a people, some of whom are still alive today. They are not going to forget and if this nation responds with silence and polite fictions that gloss over the enormity of what happened, the crime continues.  Depriving people of their liberty and their lives is bad enough but the error is exponentially increased by indifference and denial.

It is hard to admit a wrong.  It is easier to erase the collective memory and go on in blissful ignorance.  But the former makes the nation stronger because it requires serious reflection on everyone's part and the ability to say clearly to the present generation, "This was what happened and this was not in keeping with our values."

That is what I hope the French will teach my Franco/American children - a strong affirmation of this nation's values and a frank and honest admission when she has not lived up to them.  A nation like France does not need to be perfect to be loved by her citizens or by her residents.

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