(asked by Sarah, from New York)
First of all, Sarah, and everybody else, make sure that you have a comment to write as well as some questions, you don’t write them together as I’ll have to either not treat your question as its own post, or -as in this case- I won’t be able to publish the comment, and will have to either edit the whole thing, or keep even if it seems a little bit out of context. Thanks
Now, the question/comment:
I too was under the impression that France had a more serious and systemic racism issue because of the riots, the whole veil saga and most recently Sarkozy’s statement on the banning of the burka.
I have also seen several movies on this issue (La Haine, The Class/Entre Les Murs, the documentary Might is Right by Patric Jean, etc.) so I’ll admit that perhaps my hyper-focus on this issue has caused me to lose perspective. In the US I feel that racism is still a serious issue, but that racists are just a VERY loud minority.
However, I am a huge France football fan, and I do feel that a lot of the articles discussing the make-up of the French team are racist (and I’m reading French articles, not English articles on the French team). I sometimes feel that it is more acceptable (there is less of a stigma) attached to saying racist things in France than in the US. I also find that I am more likely to find anti-Semitic things printed in French papers than in the US .
But, I have to remind myself that Europe has never had a Civil Rights Movement (not that this has solved all the problems in the US). But, it is disgraceful when I see professional athletes being goaded with monkey chants, having bananas thrown at them, etc. I don’t think France is nearly as overtly racist as Spain though (I can’t believe the Spain coach was able to keep his job after calling Thierry Henry a “black shit” on camera).
So, I have a few follow-up questions related to the treatment of North African descendants/Islamic traditions in France. I am fascinated by the Maghrebin culture in France (for others, Maghrebin refers to people of North African descent).
1) Can you please explain the “Daughters of France, Daughters of Allah” movement? I find that it is a very tricky issue. On one hand I worry that it perpetuates the idea that feminism is incompatible with Islam. However, given some of the gendered violence that exists in the French suburban ghettos, I can understand how it has gained popularity.
2) As I’m studying French, I increasingly find myself getting stuck on French slang that is derived from Arabic or Verlan (which, to be honest, I’m not 100% sure what Verlan is). I can’t tell you how long it took me to figure out what “nana” and “meuf” mean. I know you don’t answer language questions, but I think this is more of a cultural issue. How popular is Verlan used in France outside of the Beur community (North African community)? Is it like in the US where there are just things that would seem “unusual” if a white person said it?
Ok, a lot of things to tackle here (as I’ll comment on your comment as well as try to answer your questions)
First of all, make sure you don’t lump different things together.
The riots of 2005 have nothing to do with racism, they were social riots, not racial or religious ones as they have all too often been presented abroad (especially in the US) and as a matter of fact most issues from the suburban ghettos in France are all too often perceived as racial (even by some French people) when they’re really social. Keep in mind that in those “ghettos” you have people from many different origins, Europe (and even France) included.
Same thing with the whole veil/burka issues, those are religious and laicity issues, not racial ones. Remember that in France, there’s an actual separation of Church and State, and religious things are more or less tolerated in the public sphere. The burka and the Muslim veil are perceived by many French people as an unacceptable invasion of religion in the public sphere, there’s no racial undertone there (of course racist people will be against them, but many non-racist people too), as a matter of fact, and there aren’t any official statistics here, but I have the feeling that most women wearing a full burka are Muslim converts, but I may be wrong.
Also, yes, if all you watch are films with tackling minorities and racism, you may then tend to see racism everywhere, especially in places where it’s nowhere.
Racists in France are too (like in most countries?) a loud minority. Thing is, that as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, France is not used to multi-culturalism, and yes, most French people are still struggling with the idea, but I really believe this is a different issue from racism although they’re very often bundled up together.
Also, I’m afraid that at times, you’re mixing up racism and political correctness or lack of thereof. I didn’t follow the whole Thierry Henry controversy with his Spanish coach, but I don’t see “black shit” as racist… An insult without a doubt, but racist is up to debate. Had Henry been blond and his coach had called him “blond shit” would it have been racist?
That reminds me of the whole “African American” that many Americans used because they have the feeling that “Black” is racist… But if it is racist, how come “White” is not?
I personally think “African American” is racist, because why aren’t white Americans called “European Americans”? And all in all, Black Americans are no more African than White Americans are European… Maybe even less.
Also, this fear of the word “Black” will lead to some very stupid things sometimes, like this American journalist (I can’t find his name anymore) who asked Nelson Mandela how it felt to be the first African-American President of South Africa. Yep, this happened, I’m not making it up.
Back to Henry, I can’t comment any more on racism in soccer as I don’t care about soccer, so I don’t read about it, so I don’t know. But as previously mentioned too, people that are fans of soccer are not usually the brightest people in the country, so I’m not surprised if you find a lot of racists among them.
You say that France never had a Civil Rights Movement, but… that’s because we never needed one. France never segregated its minorities for a Century or so and use them as slaves before that. Sure, we had slavery in France, but it was never in France, only in the colonies, and it was abolished in 1789 (you know “all men are created equal” and all that), although Napoleon shamefully reinstated it for a short while.
Also, in the 80′s we had something (with organizations like “SOS Racisme”) that helped improving tolerance between the different French ethnic groups.
Now, you two “real” questions.
1) Sorry, I can’t explain the “Daughters of France, Daughters of Allah” movement, I have never heard of it before. All I can tell you about it is what I’ll find on wikipedia and/or google. And actually I just googled it and didn’t really find anything about it (just one article from Vanity Fair dated from 2004). I assume that name is a translation, do you have the real name of the movement?
2) Yes, I see that you don’t know 100% what Verlan is, as it has nothing to do with minorities.
OK, let’s start with Verlan. I’ll try to be short (I have written a 30 page research paper on Verlan back in the days, so I tend to get carried away when I talk about it).
So what is Verlan?
It’s basically a slang that consists in cutting a word in two, and inverting those two halves to create a new word. Sometimes, some extra changes are made, usually the last syllab may be dropped.
The word “Verlan” itself is Verlan from “L’Envers.” See how?
(sorry, for those who don’t speak French you’ll get really confused here)
The word “Beur” is a Verlan word too. If nowadays it means “second and third generation Arab French”, it comes from the word “Arabe” itself.
Like this: you cut “arabe” in “ara” and “be”, you switch both and get “be-ara”, and little by little both “a” disappear, and you get “beur” (the ‘u’ being there for pronunciation purposes).
That being said, Verlan finds its sources in the 19th Century among some of the Paris working class (Parisian butchers had a “secret language” that was not that different from Verlan), so you see we’re far from our topic.
It became very popular in the 80′s in the suburban ghetto, but once again, it was not a racial phenomenon but a social (and geographical) one, as the people that revived and popularized Verlan did it to make it the language of their neighborhood. Then it gained in popularity, spread to all of the Parisian northern suburb. By the late 80′s most of Paris youth used it (except maybe the bourgeoisie kids), and then the mainstream media started to use it, it was everywhere in TV shows, commercials and all as it had become the “cool slang”.
From that point on, it actually started to decay in the ghettos, and nowadays I’m not sure many people really use it there, while on the other hand, many Verlan words made it into mainstream French (beur for instance).
Also, as you mentioned it, nana is by no means a Verlan word (it’d have to be the Verlan of… nana…), its origins are up to debate.
So you see, Verlan is not the “beur community” slang, never was and never will.
It was the Parisian ghetto suburbs slang, then it was the Parisian slang, then it became the “mainstream media cool slang”, then it became old fashioned, and used by uncool people thinking they’re cool.
Except for a few words and expressions, I don’t think it’s really used at all nowadays.