Columns

Becoming French

Stephen Henighan

By the end of your first week in France you become an irritating mystery to your French interlocutors

For an English-speaking Canadian who has been exposed to French from an early age, Paris is the most disorienting city in Europe. It is grandiose, but it is mundane. Arriving at the Gare du Nord, the Canadian visitor—particularly the visitor raised in Quebec, Ottawa or northern Ontario—recognizes signs familiar from home: Sortie, Défense de fumer. Public address system announcements recite phrases that echo in the consciousness of anyone who has boarded an Air Canada plane. My first reaction, on a recent visit to Paris, was: “Oh, this is easy, they speak a Canadian language.”

Of course I couldn’t have been more wrong. They didn’t speak my language: I spoke theirs. My error throws into relief the unparalleled oddity of the position of the bilingual English-speaking Canadian in France: you understand the words without experiencing an emotional tie to the culture; you speak the language because France once colonized part of your country, yet, unlike the Québécois, Acadien or Franco-Ontarien, you do not arrive bristling with colonial complexes. (You can save those for your visits to London—or Washington, D.C.)

Statistics Canada suggests that about two million English-speaking Canadians are bilingual in French. This figure is pathetically small: on average, a non-Hispanic American is more likely to speak Spanish than a non-Francophone Canadian is to speak French. Still, it is safe to say that many of us experience this accessible-yet-not-ours feeling in France. Even French-speaking Canadians encounter France at an emotional remove. Unlike Algeria or Haiti, New France did not fight a war to free itself from Paris’s tutelage, but was lost in a global conflict then disdained by French treaty negotiators. Even more crucially, New France was severed from Old France prior to the French Revolution, which, as you soon grasp reading Parisian place names, is the event that defines France’s national identity. It can be difficult to appreciate the immense cultural gap created by this history; it is as if English-speaking Canada had been separated from Great Britain prior to the signing of Magna Carta and sequestered on a continent where no one else spoke English. This is probably why, when the Québécois do get hot under the collar about the French, they do not invoke the injustices of the seigneurial system, but prefer to complain about the Parisian waiter who made fun of their accent.

The bilingual English-speaking Canadian may also be tripped up by his use of French-Canadian expressions. But, possessing French as an acquired rather than a maternal language, he will winnow them out of his speech after a few days. By the end of your first week in France you become an irritating mystery to your French interlocutors, your grammar too natural to be that of a learner, your accent falling into none of the received categories for foreign accents. The most casual acquaintances will growl, “You’re not Swiss, are you?”

I didn’t get to that point on my most recent trip. I was still sabotaging myself with French-Canadian expressions when I left—and marvelling at how French culture really is different. Woody Allen remains a star in France, lauded everywhere for films that were barely noticed in North America. The biggest surprise was the resurrection of another film, Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran. This third-rate French tearjerker enjoyed the most fleeting of runs on the Canadian repertory circuit last year. The plot—a Jewish boy from a psychologically damaged family finds happiness when a kindly Turkish shopkeeper converts him to Islam—does not exactly pander to current mainstream biases on our side of the Atlantic. Yet in France, Monsieur Ibrahim enjoyed box-office success and has spawned a popular stage adaptation.

The Monsieur Ibrahim phenomenon offers a glimpse into how multiculturalism works in a radically secular, centralized and integrationist society. “You can’t be an immigrant here,” an American friend, who moved to Paris twenty years ago, told me. “You have to become French.” Frenchness is not the easiest of qualities to acquire. But if you make progress, the French will at least applaud films that are complimentary of your religion. Walk around the vast pedestrian area of Les Halles, where Paris’s young people meet, and you find that most couples are interracial. Yet casual racist comments abound and the anti-immigrant National Front continues to gather steam. Last year’s law banning religious apparel in school elicited protests, but when a group of Iraqi kidnappers included the repeal of the “headscarf law” as a condition for releasing hostages, it was French Muslim groups who told the kidnappers this internal French dispute was none of their business.

The uneven results of French efforts to press newcomers into the national mould strike the visitor as more conflicted than the easygoing ways of nearby Holland, where integrationist demands are minimal. Yet since the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh last autumn in retaliation for his film about abusive Muslim marriages, it is Holland, not France, whose cities are torn by racial upheaval. Holland’s do-your-own-thing liberalism means that nowhere are Dutch audiences applauding a play such as Monsieur Ibrahim; immigrants and old-stock Dutch lack a shared vocabulary.

The Dutch experience renders ominous the common complaint that in Canada it is difficult for immigrants to know what they are assimilating into. The Canadian multicultural model, like that of Holland, is laissez-faire and non-coercive; and, as in Holland, it may not give us enough in common to pull together in a crisis. One interpretation of the evidence from Europe is that Canada, like France, should be supplying immigrants with a firmer notion of what their new nationality means: if not Cartesian uniformity of outlook, then a muddled Canadian compromise on citizenship courses. You can object that European models are irrelevant; that, unlike the Dutch, we have the immigrant experience at the heart of our national character. But a national character can be retooled by events in the time a tower takes to fall. Under pressure, a multiracial society cannot cohere when its citizens, like the bilingual Canadian in Paris, have access to the country but no emotional connection to it.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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