Don’t let the haze of nostalgia obscure the more complex reality of modern Paris

I had been to Paris once as a child, but didn’t remember much apart from telling my uncle he looked like a monkey and my brother pushing me into a puddle. I went back for the first time during the summer before my senior year in high school, and in the intervening years I had developed a  voracious appetite for all things classically French.

I had developed a penchant for bougie French new wave films, and imagined that the city, and Europe entirely, would be indistinguishable from the carefully manicured 1960s glamour of my favourite movies. I idolized Anna Karina, my favourite actress of the era, imitating her gorgeous haircut and dramatic eyeliner, but skipping the beehive-blue-santa suit combo.

The actress herself inspired me as well, not just the enigmatic characters she played on screen. Karina moved to Paris from Denmark when she was 17, and almost immediately got cast in the films of an up-and-comer named Jean-Luc Godard. The movies had worked their magic well on me, because I thought everyone in Europe elegantly smoked their cigarettes and drank their wine and fell in love, and then got cast in gorgeous movies on their way home.  

When the prospect of Paris arose that summer, I fantasized of a Midnight in Paris-esque escapade.

Of course I knew of France’s history regarding its former colonies, and the current treatment of immigrants. But I foolishly didn’t realize that meant me too.

I stayed with my aunt and my cousins, in Asnieres, a suburb north of Paris. Up until then I had lived my life as a Moroccan-Canadian in Vancouver, where most people have been befuddled by my face.

Then I got a taste of my aunt’s existence as a hijabi woman in France. I realize now that I have been very privileged in being able to grow into my cultural and religious identity. I now know that most places don’t offer you the opportunity of self-exploration. They decide it for you.

The first thing I noticed was the air of segregation between the multicultural metropolis core, and the immigrant neighbourhoods of Asnieres.

In fact, former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls even referred to a social, ethnic, and territorial “apartheid” in France in a 2015 statement. This isn’t unique to France. According to recent research by professor Maarten van Hamm, segregation has increased since 2001 in 11 of 13 major European cities. The main culprit is rising inequality.

Interesting enough, French law actually prohibits the collection of data on race, ethnicity, and religion, due to the argument that these types of statistics are essentially discriminatory.

“Patrick Simon, a researcher at the National Institute of Demographic Studies, has been repeatedly frustrated by what he sees as a fundamental contradiction — on the one hand, repeated references to race, ethnicity and religion in the public debate, and on the other, the absence of quantitative instruments to measure the populations everyone is talking about,” according to the New York Times.

In 2005, riots broke out in banlieues across France as a result of the death of three youths at the hands of law enforcement, in conjunction with other issues related to police brutality and inequality. In recent years, the rise of far-right parties across Europe, the Mediterranean refugee crisis, and discriminatory policies against Muslim women, have made identity issues unavoidable.

However in Canada we still talk about Paris, and Europe in general, as if it were a democratic socialist utopia frozen in time, both infinitely more progressive, yet more traditional than home.

During our time together, my aunt made an effort to expose me to a more diverse experience than just seeing the Eiffel Tower. She took me to L’Institut du Monde Arabe, where I saw an array of Arab cultural and historical objects that preceded the narrow conception of history I had grown up with. I was introduced to the French-Moroccan author, Tahar Ben Jelloun who is now one of my favourite writers.

Since then, I’ve widened my scope. I’ve watched movies likes Un Prophete, La Haine, and the T.V. series Aicha that all focus on different experiences of non-white French citizens.

Paris is still a breaktaking, richly historical destination, and you should still go. But when you’re in the Louvre, don’t just look at the Mona Lisa. When you’re drinking the delectable French wine, try some North African or South Asian cuisine. Travel should be about discovering what a place once was, but also what it is becoming.