by Aidan Chivers
Aidan reflects on a recent conversation he had on his year abroad in central France.
‘You’re such wonderful people!’
There’s excitement in her voice as she recognises that accent that I’ve been trying so hard to suppress from my French.
‘Admittedly I’ve only ever spent one weekend in England, but honestly, I never felt so accepted in all my life.’
One of the real pleasures of living in a small French town is the novelty factor of being a Brit. There are very few English speakers about, and even fewer English people, and as such, I am treated to a wide range of clichés (which, to my surprise, seem to be overwhelmingly positive) about the English and their ways.
‘For the first time since I came to Europe, I could almost forget that I was wearing a headscarf.’
One of the most enduring and heart-warming themes that come out of these kinds of conversation is the perception that the UK (and in particular England) is a paradigm of racial and religious tolerance, where opportunities abound for all, and everyone is accepted for who they are. I had never considered England particularly welcoming as compared with other Western European countries – but then again, this year abroad has given me a very different perspective on that issue.
‘In London, people are just so polite! When I met them, they’d ask where I was from, and smile like they genuinely cared. They were interested to hear all about my culture!’
I feel a real burst of pride as I hear her tell with such enthusiasm how warmly she was welcomed in England. When you’re abroad, it’s easy to think fondly of your home country – and with encouragement like this, it’s hard not to romanticise where you’re from.
‘Here in France, people treat me so differently as a Muslim. There’s a culture of real suspicion. I see the way people look at me, and what they think of our community…’
The comparison may not be a completely fair one – a post-industrial, financially struggling town of 16,000 is never going to share the attitudes of a large, cosmopolitan city like London – but perhaps it’s not totally unreasonable, either.
‘It just feels like our religion has no place in the town.’
I can’t help feeling that France’s policy of radical secularism (the laïcité on which it so prides itself) possibly doesn’t help matters. Religion is driven out of all public institutions in a way that is quite unlike the rest of Europe; from school onwards, French children are taught that their religions should have no place in public life.
‘But your people just seem so accepting. If I had my time again, I’d want to go to the UK and start my life over there.’
Her words sadden me, conveying as they do a sense of melancholy, of disillusionment, of never having felt fully at home where she lived. But I can’t help feeling a certain pleasure, too, that the country where I grew up has acquired such wonderful associations (whether fully justified or not) in the eyes of this Moroccan Frenchwoman.
‘And whenever I hear of a terror attack happening over in your country, it breaks my heart.’
I see real grief on her face, and I am touched by her capacity to empathise so strongly with those on the other side of the Channel. Nevertheless, I can’t help wondering slightly about the emphasis she put on that particular word.
‘And I tell my friends, it’s terrible, because they’re such nice people! Those people really doesn’t deserve it!’
Her sorrow is genuine, but there’s something faintly disturbing lurking in her underlying assumptions. It’s a casual remark, but it shows traces, perhaps, of a mentality we are all too often afraid to acknowledge – especially when it comes from a lady as warm and friendly as the one that I met.