Letter from France

One of greatest virtues of attic apartments is that, when it snows, the slanted windows gather the flakes in easy snowdrifts. At least, this is the case in Strasbourg, France, where my windowpane has, on multiple unexpected and exhilarating occasions, accumulated a precious handful of flakes. My roommates reflect upon this year’s record snowfall with nostalgia; according to Leila, it is reminiscent of their childhood winters, when a decent snowball fight was common fare rather than a miracle. As an American of Midwestern persuasion, such fanfare for a scant two inches of snow amuses me. But starved as I am for an authentic winter, I’ve learned to take what I can get.

Ironically, Strasbourg’s good meteorological luck has coincided with the first winter in years that the town has been unable to host the Christmas Markets. These Marchés de Noël date back to the 1500s and have since become central to the city’s identity; in 1992, local government crowned itself “La Capital de Noël,” not an unfounded claim considering Strasbourg nets an annual 250 million euros in Christmas Market profits. This abnormally white Christmas seems to laugh in the face of a city which, under ever-tightening coronavirus restrictions, cannot traffic in its typical holiday cheer.

In the absence of the Marchés de Noël, Strasbourg has kept a minimum of Christmas spirit on the streets. In keeping with the city’s traditional festivities, the local government procured the typical nearly 100-foot-tall Christmas tree in Kléber square, neon angels streetlights and glowing, many-pointed origami stars that were scattered among trees in the city center. In an act of goodwill, the federal government lifted the nationwide 8 p.m. curfew on Christmas Eve, ostensibly to allow family gatherings during a holiday season so dangerous that it inspired travel restrictions to prevent families from gathering.

Few critiques feel quite as Grinch-like as pointing out that such exceptions were not made during Ramadan, when over 4 million French citizens celebrated under lockdown. Of course, the novel coronavirus paralyzed France just two months prior to Ramadan  and deaths in the country peaked soon after the virus’s arrival. But in a country notoriously self-congratulatory for its secularism—a secularism notably defined by its general inclination to punch down when convenient, but never up—even benevolent gestures are bound to inspire Grinch-dom.

Since I moved to France two barely-white winters ago, decoding the French take on secularism or “laïcité” has proven to be an arduous task. Initially, I mistakenly assumed that France’s hypocrisy took the same form as that of my home country. Both states blow hard about their mythologized constitutions and “progressive” amendments—the recent legalization of trans inscription in the US military and France’s move to erase all mention of race from the constitution come to mind. Both fall dramatically short of delivering the religious freedom they promise, both on a symbolic and a far more impactful interpersonal level. I have since learned that the Islamophobia that informs this so-called laïcité resists an American interpretation.

France’s systemic Islamophobia extends far beyond unequal treatment of high holidays under coronavirus. Following the heinous beheading of a French schoolteacher this fall, police acted on nationwide panic about “Islamist separatist” movements by shutting down 76 mosques and deporting 66 “radicalized” undocumented immigrants. Racial profiling against Black and Arab citizens has become so rampant as to trigger a class action lawsuit against French police. Far-right leader and 2022 presidential candidate Marine Le Pen recently proposed a complete ban on veils and hijabs, a stricter take on the country’s already infamous hijab restrictions.

It’s difficult to illustrate the everyday violence that these reports, lawsuits, and investigations into Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism represent. Anecdotally, I witness France’s Islamophobia on a weekly basis from my living room couch, where my roommates, both French-Moroccan, decompress. A woman accosted Imane in the street one rainy day, yelling obscenities at her after mistaking the scarf she was using as an umbrella for a hijab; years earlier, police questioned her in relation to a violent crime in the area, even though the suspects had already been identified as white. Both Leila and Imane are far more likely to be “randomly” checked by the petty transit police than I am. It is not lost on any of us that I am the only immigrant among us, supposedly the preferred target of French authorities, and yet realistically the least likely to be stopped.

Compounded historical injustices simmer beneath these everyday aggressions. “North Africans built France,” Imane fumes one night after a racist encounter out in the world, “but no one recognizes it.” Gesturing to the world map that hangs over our living room sofa, she explains in layman’s terms how waves of North Africans immigrated to France during the First and Second World War to fight and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. These immigrants staffed factories and reconstructed skylines, breathing new life into the country, Imane tells me, indicating the periwinkle hexagon of France. But almost every city they rebuilt pushed them to the literal edge of town, into remote housing projects (now known as banlieues) intended to segregate them from the white French population. In 2021, North Africans (immigrant and French-born alike) are told in no uncertain terms that their presence is a burden. Beneath the sizzle and pop of such racist asides, this history remains.

Even if Strasbourg’s Marchés de Noël were open this year, the vin chaud stalls and hot pretzel slingers would have shuttered by now. When the Christmas trimmings are packed away—trees bundled out of town squares and Christmas carols drained from school loudspeakers—the holes in France’s façade of laïcité will become less conspicuous. At the very least, the kindnesses extended to the country’s Christian communities under coronavirus will be viewed as just that: kindnesses. But in light of the bare-faced aggression that Muslims face every day, this seemingly harmless favoritism burns with the hypocrisy to which French Muslims are far too accustomed, one that only threatens to intensify as the country scrambles to stabilize during the pandemic.

Bella Dally-Steele