After seven months in Périgueux’s cultural void, I finally found an Arabic class. Upon answering an online ad by a Moroccan woman, I found myself in a stranger’s living room, sucking down apple juice and sweet honied cakes, and learning the first three letters of the Arabic alphabet.
Instead of absorbing the sounds “ba,” “ti,” or “koo,” I took home with me something much more tangible and disturbing. My teacher lives in an HLM, which are like the American projects, only instead of row houses or half-collapsing shanties, the French ghettos are set up in a series of barren apartments. But unlike those found on the seafront or even in the middle of the city, these complexes are pushed to the outskirts of town, the eyesores far out of view from middle-class citizens. They’re gray and dingy, with streaks of black streaming down from the outside windows, as if someone had set fire to them long ago, aired them out for a bit and then deemed them habitable. Grass is available, that is if you’re comfortable with generous amounts of weeds, litter and dog poop.
The inside is not much better. Tiny kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms cram two, three, or even six people into any remaining space where a body can fit. Balconies are a luxury, as are windows, and don’t expect an elevator to take you up those four flights of stairs.
After my hour lesson, my teacher walks me out. She tells me that the electrical system in the building was installed back in 1958 and has not been dealt with since. If that’s not a grand scale, life-threatening fire, I don’t know what is. I ask her who pays for cleaning up the inside of the building, which is streaked with graffiti, marks of dirt on the walls and dust floating about everywhere. “The state,” she says, looking disgusted. I take this small conversational window to admit my own disgust with the French government and how no one’s doing anything about these walls, these hallways, these people.
My teacher tells me she has her masters in education and used to be an Arabic teacher in Morocco. But since coming to France ten years ago, where she still remains without legal citizenship or working papers, she has not been able to find work. In order to get said papers, she must live in France for five years as a resident. But since she is not considered legal, her ten years in the country can’t be verified and therefore, don’t count for jack squat.
Subsequently, her two children are not legal either, making applying for jobs nearly impossible. Her oldest son is 23 and her youngest is 18. She tells me they’re both in school, but I wonder, what will they do? Her oldest will graduate soon from law school in a few years but will he be able to find work? Will Sarko have figured out by then that we can’t just follow Bush’s lead and “send them all back to where they came from?”
More importantly, when is France going to figure out that ignoring the problem doesn’t solve it? After living in Marseille for two years, this urban ghetto in Perigueux is nothing. In Marseille, the HLMs are pushed even further out, 45 minutes from the town center with limited bus access and nowhere to buy groceries. As a result, the kids go to the local school, which is at the bottom of the stairs of their building, and play football in a parking lot filled with broken glass and littered garbage. Why? Because “the state” is turning a blind eye. The French government seems to think that putting people up behind four walls is enough of a gift that they virtually wash their hands clean of these new residents, mostly impoverished, mostly immigrants and mostly without resources.
What disturbs me perhaps more is my teacher’s story of being completely qualified to do a job but unable to get hired. How can a woman with a masters degree in education, in a language that is quickly becoming France’s second, be ignored to the point of near destitution?
Although mysterious, her story is not uncommon. I have other friends in France who have moved here, living for years without success in acquiring working papers, residency or citizenship. One friend in Marseille has been diligently trying to get his family here from Zambia for over five years, only to be rejected every time. A full-time architect who has benefitted from the French education system, he has now spent more than four years working for this country. Yet, with no explanation and no promise of his chances going up, each year he receives another rejected application. All he can do is make a passing comment about racism in France before going about his life and work. For if he cannot succeed himself, he surely won’t have the means to get his family here for a better life.
Immigration is the only topic I refuse to discuss with a French person, for I know that I can never understand and can never be understood either. Being born into a nation based on immigration (and lacking a certain palpable culture), how could I dare debate a person who has grown up with clear cultural mores, instilled in them since birth? In America, we may not embrace immigrants with open arms, but we have enough social services professionals awaiting their arrival to get them upright and going down the right track towards citizenship. At a minimum, we have a true interest in where they’ve come from, what they’re doing here and their hopes and dreams. In France, the arms are significantly more aggressive and seek to harm not to heal. Even regular French citizens seem to have a distaste for their country’s immigrant population. The motto seems to be, “put the immigrants far away until we can’t see them… and maybe they’ll go away.”
If a tiny town like Perigueux can inflict such a degrading situation on the nation’s poorest, I can only imagine Paris or Bordeaux. The French government needs to take a swift step back from Bush’s lead, stop thinking about what France used to be, and start realizing – and accepting – what France has now become. If not, the country will become saturated with even more broken hearts and wasted talent. And no amount of dingy high rise HLMs are going to hide the problem.