Stepping off the plane, I sighed with relief at being able to stretch my legs after sitting for seven hours. I followed the signs to passport control and after about an hour of waiting, I casually walked up to the counter where a bright-eyed immigration officer smiled and silently stamped my booklet. Against the backdrop of a somewhat gloomy day in an empty waiting area, I collected my bags and called an Uber. There I stood in a sea of orange created by blinking hazard signals and the symphony of horns outside of Charles de Gaulle – an experience that felt familiar to me now.
Returning to the country for the first time since a homestay two years prior, it almost slipped my mind that I was actually in France. I slipped into the car and mindlessly greeted the driver who caught my attention as he cursed a minivan for cutting him off. In my mind, I wasn’t in a foreign country—I was somewhere I felt that I knew, though I’d only spent ten days there before. I was somewhere where I had a good understanding of the people and spoke the language. Driving through the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers, I still felt at ease seeing various shades of brown people walking through the streets—I almost felt at home. I was returning to a place I was familiar with.
Maybe it was my relative familiarity with France that previously qualified me to idealize the country. I saw France as an example for how a democratic country should work. For example, I would scoff at debates about the merits of universal health care in the United States, “This certainly wouldn’t happen in France, where health care is considered a right.” But this time things were different. Even as the open parks and grand avenues decorated my day, a sense of criticism crept up. Chatting with the French in cafés and over meals, I began to look at my Parisian environment with the same scrutiny I would facing Chicago or New York.
My mind opened up to the idea that France, like the United States, was also afflicted with the internal issues of a colonizing power. This became more evident in part due to my changing experiences at home. Living as a Black American during the Trump presidency has not necessarily made me more critical of the United States, because it’s always prudent to be critical of the United States when you’re black. However, Trump’s election has made me more discerning abroad. Being an American abroad is exhausting – everyone’s itching to hear your opinion on the Donald. Usually my disdain for Trump went over well in France, where he is extremely unpopular. Occasionally though, I’d run into someone who’d try to defend Trump’s stance on refugees and immigration. “Well, what he’s saying is true in every country: you can’t jump over a border, have a child and think you can stay!” asserted a man I spoke to about the subject as we strolled through the Jardin de Luxembourg. It was the same placing of blame on those looking for brighter futures that I had heard back home in the United States, a country defined by immigrants.
From my time in the classroom to dinnertime conversations, I encountered the chauvinism that underscores the French social model – especially when it came to discussing issues of religion and race. Many of the French I spoke with were convinced that they were the model society and that all other countries could be judged by how much or how little they resemble France. Once while arguing for the need of affirmative action in a country that is in many ways as racially divided as the US, my interlocutor defended France’s ban against the practice, stating, “it’s just the French way!” This response stands as a representative of many of the conversations I had. The same went for discussions about French conceptions of laïcité républicaine — or separation of church and state. “Once I was on the metro when a Muslim woman wearing a headdress approached to ask me a question,” a guest in my homestay once commented. I inadvertently rolled my eyes expecting this part of the conversation to go as far south as it had before. “Before she could finish her question, I told her ‘If you won’t uncover your head, I won’t talk to you. If you can’t follow the laws and customs of my country, I don’t have to talk to you.” My eyes grew wide at this woman’s frankness in sharing this story—how open she was with explaining that she effectively discriminated against someone because of her perceptions of how they dressed.
I feel it necessary to note that it wasn’t only white French people who challenged my assumptions about France. As a black person, it’s especially troubling to hear another minority play into the stereotypes that have come to define black people. While I should have expected that it would be the same overseas, I was shocked that I was compared to a stereotypical understanding of black folk by the Arab owner of a brasserie near my homestay, a kind Moroccan man who would greet me each day warmly. When arriving at my homestay, my host introduced me to this man and I was delighted that at each time I past the brasserie, he greeted me with a “Bonjour, how’s it going my friend?” Due to the sincere welcome I received there, I had no issue returning returned to the brasserie almost once a week for a drink. But as I left from my third visit, the owner introduced me to his friend: “Hey, this guy’s an American. He’s a stand-up guy, he’s not one of those West Side gangster dudes.”
Though I didn’t say anything at the moment, I could feel my irritation warm my insides. I walked into France with the naïve expectation that my blackness would not be subject to the same scrutiny as at home, in part because growing up we would always talk about how black people were treated better in France than in the United States. But I was also shocked by this introduction, given an interaction I had had just two days prior I had lunch at a small restaurant in the fourteenth owned by two Tunisian brothers. When I told one of the brothers that I was from Chicago, he seemed ecstatic to have found someone with whom he could speak about basketball and the Bulls. After a while, we started discussing the difficulties of being a person of color in a predominantly white country and at the end of our conversation he concluded: “You know, we Arabs in France are just like the blacks of America.” In spite of the gravity of the conversation, I felt better at that moment than at almost any other time in Paris. In that moment I radiated happiness because it was the first time someone could relate to the struggles I faced every day in a society constructed on an oppression I found difficult to articulate, in a city that everybody around me seemed to idealize. The downside of this conversation: it set an unrealistically high bar for the interactions that followed.
My socio-political assessments of France are based on a minor part of the interactions I had there. However, these few interactions affirmed what I had previously been blind to. Now I’m coming to terms with the fact that even a nation known for its richness of culture and history, for its democratic model, and for its belief in equality can fall short of its egalitarian ideal. Walking down Paris’ grand boulevards, one can see the remnants of revolution, from strict adherence to the plans of Haussmann and to the monuments of Napoleon III. In contrast, it wasn't so easy for me to find these aspects of the vision of the Revolution there are new revolutions France must go through today. I still love France, and every day I plan for ways to return there for something more than tourism or academics. But rather than seeing it as the metric for equality, I’ll approach it as a place where, just like my own home, there’s still work to be done.