Boulevard Barbès, Montmartre, Paris, France.

Paris Walks — Meandering Multicultural Paris

That couscous could be considered Paris’ quintessential dish by one of the city’s star chefs, that an American tourist told us what she most loved about Paris was its diversity, and that a ban of the full Islamic veil (niqab) or ‘burqa’ as the French call it looks set to be introduced soon, were all things that had me thinking about multiculturalism in France during our stay in Paris. When our friends at Context invited us on one of their Paris walks, ‘Immigration and the Changing Face of Paris’ with Sophie Nells, who completed a thesis on Algerian immigrants in Paris, I leapt at the opportunity.

I was eager for greater insight into the complex relationship the French, and the Parisians in particular, have with their immigrants. According to a 2006 study, 8% of France’s population, that is, 4.9 million people are foreign-born immigrants, and France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population.

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Yet the cosmopolitanism our American friend finds appealling, and the exotic flavours Parisians appear to love — from couscous to sheesha (narghile) — are obviously not adored by all. An overwhelming number of comments left on the French government’s controversial website, Grand débat sur l’identité nationale (Big Debate on National Identity), established to discuss what it means to be French, were deleted because they were racist, while the proposed ‘burqa’ ban (which could also apply to tourists) is creating further tension.

Our walk with Sophie began at Metro Château Rouge on Boulevard Barbès in a multicultural working class neighbourhood just a five-minute stroll from Sacré Coeur and our ‘home’ on Rue des Abbesses, but world’s away culturally and socially from the lives of the affluent white Parisians residing nearby on the butte (hill) of Montmartre.

Boulevard Barbès and the surrounding streets have a vibrant North African-cum-Middle Eastern vibe, lined with cluttered shops with names like ‘Bazar Orient’, African women’s hairdressers specialising in elaborate wigs and hair extensions, and telephone ‘boutiques’ advertising cheap calls to Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Mali, Cote D’Ivoire, and Senegal and so on. Strolling these streets, I felt like I was back in the Middle East. Almost.

Sophie gave our little group of six an introduction to the history of immigration in France, from the Middle Ages when skilled artisans from Germany and Spain came here to work, through the successive waves of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries: Russians in the 1920s, Spanish in the 1930s, Italians in the 1940s, various nationalities from Asia (especially Cambodia and Vietnam) from the 1960s onwards, and the waves of North- and Sub-Saharan Africans in recent decades up, when immigration became a hot topic in France.

We strolled along the open air market street of Rue Poulet, by Muslim butchers displaying halal meat, pastry shops selling sweets from the Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco), and fruit and vegetable shops boasting spices and herbs more commonly associated with African and Middle Eastern food than French. We wandered down Rue des Poissonniers, passing textile shops crammed with stacks of bold-patterned fabrics, CD shops blaring Rai and Bollywood music, and travel agencies representing African, Middle Eastern and Asian airlines.

We stopped outside the Mosquee Al Fath on the corner of Rue des Poissonniers and Rue Polonceau where Sophie showed us a photo of the street crammed with worshippers praying during their religious Eid holidays, as she described the history of the mosque and its significance to local residents. While in France, it’s thought that 9% of the population are Muslims, in Paris one in every four people come from the Maghreb.

Around the corner on Rue de la Goutte d’Or — la Goutte d’Or is the name given to the surrounding area, and is also a name for cheap wine in France — we stop on the corner of a small square crowded with dapper old gentlemen from the Maghreb socializing, wearing crisp white jellabiyas (long North African robe) and leather babouches (pointy slippers) or plaid suits with a woollen fez.

Sophie briefs us on the demise of the French colonies, particularly Algeria, which the French felt was their own, and the violent Franco-Algerian war that followed — because it was here, where many Algerians, most of whom were living in cheap bedsits, would send their hard-earned money home to support the armed resistance struggle against the French. It was also here where the harkis or Algerian army auxiliaries had their headquarters and where there was frequent acts of repression upon the immigrants. And it was also here where tensions escalated to the point where unfathomable violence, even torture, occurred, resulting in the massacre by French police of hundreds of Algerians in Paris on 17 October 1961, a topic that was the main subject of Sophie’s research.

The controversial police headquarters remain open on Rue de la Goutte d’Or and when we stroll down to the bustling North African market (my favourite in Paris) that sprawls beneath the railway tracks and Barbès Rochechouart station, we are ourselves witness to a small act of repression: plain clothes policemen search an elderly man from the Maghreb (carrying little else but a bag of lemons) and a young veiled woman who appears to be his daughter (carrying nothing more than a handbag). Finding nothing, the police release them, the old man spitting at the plain clothes officers and a crowd of young men hurling abuse in French, Arabic, and even English, in their direction.

While it’s illegal to collect data in France based on ethnicity, Sophie shares some interesting statistics she’s discovered: in 2006, 8% of France’s population was foreign-born (a figure that excludes the large population of sans papiers or illegal immigrants), while here in La Goutte d’Or 34.2% of residents are foreign, compared to the Paris average of 16.6%, and some 36 different nationalities make the area their home.

Sophie explains how Paris’ immigrants have been marginalized, many forced through their economic circumstances to move into cheaper housing in the vast concrete projects of the banlieue or suburbs outside Paris. There, a lack of transport, depressing living conditions, and high unemployment contributed to the riots of 2005 when cars were set ablaze, shops and schools vandalized, and the area temporarily became a war zone.

It’s a very different situation in cosmopolitan Belleville, where we catch the metro next, where North African, Asians and Jews live and work side by side. As we stroll down Boulevard de Belleville, passing Jewish patisseries, Tunisian cafés, and Chinese-Vietnamese-Thai restaurants, Sophie explains that here there has been little of the tension or conflict of La Goutte d’Or or the suburbs.

We take another metro ride south over the Seine to Gare d’Austerlitz and saunter through the lovely Jardin des Plantes to the Great Mosque of Paris, France’s largest mosque. Sophie is eager to end her walk on a positive note. The mosque, she tells us, was inaugurated in 1926 in recognition of the Muslims who fought for France in WWI, and around the corner the stunning cultural centre and museum that is the Institut du Monde Arabe or Institute of the Arab World, (where I buy some postcards), is another symbol of France’s special relationship to ‘the Orient’.

In the space of a few hours, Sophie has taken us on a stroll through some of Paris’ most vibrant neighbourhoods while adeptly covering the history of French immigration, revealing how it has historically been fraught with tension, and how the French have struggled with and continue to grapple with the changing make-up of their country. At the same time, we’ve seen how Parisians have embraced everything foreign and exotic, from couscous to the mint tea being sipped by the multicultural mix of people in the mosque’s courtyard café.

Among the Parisians, tourists and expats at the café, I detect familiar Arabic accents, that of affluent educated Arabs from the Levant and Gulf, and when I later wander into the mosque, I come across a group of young, veiled Emirati women taking photos of the architecture, gardens and each other with their professional Nikon cameras. Media students no doubt. I wonder what they all make of the cultural diversity of Paris, the halal butchers and pastry shops, the abundant couscous restaurants — and the burqa ban.

There are 4 comments

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  1. Katja

    The burqa ban is a really tricksy one. On one hand, the burqa is not religious *law*, but a *symbol*, much like the Christian cross. You’re therefore not breaking any deep religious code by not wearing it. Indeed, some would say that the reasons for not wearing it are far greater than the opposite, in that the burqa was enforced by men to oppress women. From that point of view, I can’t wait for it to be removed. On the other hand, women who are proponents of the burqa insist that they wear it through choice, not because their menfolk tell them that they have to. They would say that government mandate forbidding them from wearing what they want to wear is just as bad as one telling them what they *must* wear. The argument just seems to go round and round in circles, but I can’t help but feel that if government want to ban one kind of religious symbol then they should ban them all …

    Really interesting article.

  2. Liv

    What stunning photos, and a lovely post to boot! Nothing beats a beautiful meandering walk, in any city! Thank you for showing me a side of Paris I’ve never seen.

  3. Lara Dunston

    Hi Katja

    I moved to the UAE in 1998 with Terence to work at a women’s university in Abu Dhabi and we’re still ‘based’ out of Dubai. In my experience, the ‘burqa’ or any kind of ‘veil’, the niqab, hijab, shaylahs, scarves, etc, are worn for different reasons by different women; sometimes it’s religious, sometimes it’s cultural, other times it’s social. In the Gulf countries, the long black abaya and black shaylah worn by the women, and the white dishdashas and gutra and agal (checked headdresses) worn by the men are their national costumes, symbols of national identity that they wear with pride. Each country, from UAE to Bahrain can identify citizens of another by the way they dress. Historically, their Bedouin mothers and grandmothers wore what they call a ‘burqa’ (a black or gold beak-like mask) to protect their skin from the harsh sun and wind of the desert.

    I taught many women who also wore the niqab (what the French call a ‘burqa’), generally they were of Yemeni background, some of ‘Persian’ heritage and I spent time with them when they weren’t wearing it too, in the company of women only – they all wore it by choice, they felt more comfortable, they didn’t like men looking at them, and once I knew their personalities, which I got to know through the niqab, it made no difference to me whether they wore it or not.

    I totally agree that if they’re going to ban one ‘religious’ symbol they should ban them all – why allow Catholic women to wear lace veils in the Easter processions? But having said that, I believe we should all have the freedom to wear whatever it is we want to wear, whether that costume represents our social, cultural, religious or national identity. Gosh, wouldn’t the streets be a dull place otherwise?

    Thanks for dropping by – I really appreciate your comments!

  4. Lara Dunston

    Hi Liv

    Thank you for your lovely words – greatly appreciated! You must do a Context walk when you’re next in Paris. Or simply head to these ‘hoods for a stroll!

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