Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Exiled in Paris in September

A Theatre Group called "Gypsies" plays on on inhumanity of the deportations

In France I have come to understand, in the words of one of its greatest writers, that I carry my exile within me. In France I have come to understand that my exile is not a discomfort of place or of city, of culture or of language, but that the vexation and dilemma of being an outsider is imagined. It is imagined in the sense that exile is the refuge I choose from those structures that are erected as a matter of survival and self-definition by all societies, not just in France. Albert Camus’ exiles, whether they be painters, Algerians, intellectuals, poor or adulterers oscillate between belonging and exile, being rooted and rootless, between speech and silence against the background of a war in Algeria, the demise of a colonial empire, and intense hostility to the "other." The social structures that offer Camus’ exiles a public identity are, apparently, more immediate, thus more inviting of conflict and aggression than are those of the France in which I live today. And Camus' exiles are, not like me, they are not white, middle-class, educated women carrying Australian passports.
Luigi Loir, La Place de la République, 
And yet, September in Paris began with contention and conflicts that reinforce my sense of estrangement in France. September in Paris reminded me that the Algerian war is not so far from the minds of a country that claims to be a socialist refuge from the politics that breed terrorism, religious extremism, racial depravity, for example. Much as I was frustrated at not being able to go under the bridges along the canal because the thoroughfares had been taken over by gypsy communities, I was horrified when Sarkozy and his cronies expelled them. And like everyone from my neighbors and Human Rights groups to European Commission representatives, I remain disgusted and dismayed at the government’s racism and xenophobia in the very thin guise of “national security.” That said, the government of the passport I carry cannot be held up as in any way different: The ongoing protest against refugees to the vast land of Australia is hardly an example of racial tolerance. Despite temptations to proclaim otherwise, racial discrimination and social prejudice is not a peculiarly French thing. So in September, I have come to realize, that’s not why I continue to identify as an outsider in Paris. Like Camus’ protagonists, it is the turning of imaginary differences into real antagonism against which I struggle in the longing to belong. It is the impossible reconciliation between my beliefs, my language as an individual and the voices of those who frame the community in which I live that keeps me in exile.
A lonely bird on the steps of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France
For all this tension that makes integration impossible, in September I am reminded of what is particularly Parisian, at least, what gives Paris a vitality in the face of such oppression, discrimination and intolerance: the response of the Parisians. It was a response that offers new ways of belonging in September. The city ground to a halt, the metros were running one every ten minutes, and cars were off the road (no small feat for a city in which the car is the privileged form of transport). And the party began. From Place de la République to Place de la Nation, from the landmark that remembers the anticipation of the revolution to the square marking its success, Parisians vociferously protested the absurdity of its government’s latest expulsions. And then, because it is Paris, the demonstrations continued, the following week, while energy was still high, against the raising of the retirement age. If August in Paris is lazy and empty, a city at the beach, this September was heralded by the very opposite. It is this verve, this commitment and conviction to social justice that enables foreigners such as myself to exist between the belief of the people and at the opposite extreme, that of a government that despises the “other.”


James Polchin said...

Lovely meditation on the current life of France, and being outside of it. I think there is something really valuable in "carrying your exile with you." You (we) are able to see the city and it routines, its politics and its frustrations in a way that most Parisians can not--from the vantage point of an outsider. I also think that even in the countries we come from, we see ourselves as outsiders. Being an exile turns that other outsiderness its own powerful place.

Frances Guerin said...

Thanks for your comment - Camus says that too, or at least, his outsiders do, they embrace their exile and in ownership, they claim their identity and a kind of peace with their place in the world. It is what gives them power.

Frances Guerin said...
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Virginia Pitts said...

Yes, it's a state (of mind and geography) I'm familiar with and seem always to have sought out. I very much enjoyed your musings on the condition. I personally don't think of myself as an exile - to me the term implies something imposed rather than chosen. I tend to think of my chosen condition as that of a stranger in George Simmel's sense of the term -- a person both near and far, never praying to the group's gods enough to properly belong, yet close enough to have a function (often of a reflective nature).

Frances Guerin said...

The connection to Simmel is an interesting one but I am not familiar with this part of his writings. But what you say resonates with what so many say about that in between space occuppied by the one who does and does not belong.

The choice of an identity of exile has brought a great sense of freedom for me. I was brought up in a world in which there was no place for me. At least, the person I was brought up to be - culturally, socially, intellectually - doesn't fit the world that made me that person. To appropriate the identity of the exile affords an identity that connects me to others who also choose exile. Simultaneously, that identity is divorced from any geographical, cultural, national, political, etc. specificity.