Muhammad Najm Akbar
French mayors and local elected officials had reasons to be proud of the services they offered to their old and new citizens or permanent residents. They had a great task, nonetheless, keeping up with rapid changes in the demographics. When I entered France for the first time during President Mitterrand’s first septennat, Pakistanis did not have a large presence. Unlike across the English Channel, the outre Manche, France did not seem to attract them. Colonialism affected the flow of immigrants abroad. France had then the largest Muslim minority in Europe, but the overwhelming majority of these immigrants came from the North African part of France’s overseas empire. North Africans learned French like South Asia learned English. At the beginning of my career in Pakistan, I spent a few days interpreting for a visiting delegation of young officials from a North African country. One morning, a friendly face among them complained that in such a hospitable and beautiful country as Pakistan, they could not get fresh, oven-baked croissants. It had been a moment of thought. Cricket as a game and English as the official language and the language of prestige were not the only things that distinguished Pakistan from this fellow third-world developing country with which it also shared a relationship of the same faith and belief system. Pakistan had a wide variety of breakfast items across the country. In my mother tongue, they also had a beautiful noun for breakfast, “shahwaila” i.e., the king of times or the King’s time, the best meal of the day because Punjabis enjoyed it in multiple ways. Pakistan’s cultural capital Lahore, expressing that indulgence most exquisitely, had a thriving breakfast industry. It offered to its patrons early morning a wide variety of choices prepared overnight with meat, lentils, milk and yogurt drinks, bread of various types, and dessert delicacies. These breakfast items responded to the local production environment, human labor, and climate needs. British rule introduced new habits to the urban areas. Pakistan thus also became a large producer of English breakfast bread, finding a hybrid name: double roti (bread). The croissant was not part of the Lahore breakfast corners.
People also knew more about colonial powers than their fellow colonized states. I learned the language of another colonial power and loved doing it. Languages of two colonial empires enabled their former subjects to communicate with each other. Knowledge had the same story. Colonized persons knew more about the colonial powers than the people having similar experiences as them under imperial rule. At a town hall meeting, the visiting North African group had no idea how to handle a situation when one of their interlocutors glorified a North African leader of the freedom movement. He asked them to convey to North Africa the love and friendship Pakistanis felt for Ahmed bin Billa. He had been living in exile in Switzerland for a few years by then.
Colonial subjects had no linear equations with the Empires that had ruled them. Colonized subjects visiting or living in colonial power centers had experienced a history of contradictions and promises. Enough of them had made their choices nonetheless in favor of fighting for freedom. They won but then their compatriots also found colonial empires as favorite destinations for migration.
French-speaking colonies were fully a part of the French landscape. One of our teachers at CAVILAM had figured out how much some of her students from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia loved spicy food. She found a way to please them. From the beginning of the French class, she had instituted a small fine for every non-French word students uttered during the teaching hours. She proposed at the end of the term that they should enjoy a meal together with their accumulated wealth of fines paid for linguistic impurities. She suggested a North African restaurant. There were as many of those eating places in France as were the South Asian curry places outre Manche. North Africans had a huge market in Paris and several other cities. French loved their national cuisine, but the North African flavors had found a way to their taste buds.
Muslim students at CAVILAM had also found a Masjid there. Many of them would fast during endless days of hot summer that had gradually set in after a harsh and long winter and coincided with the lunar month of Ramadan. They would complain how fasting and Ramadan prayers had taken a toll on their energy and sleeping hours and introduced a bit of fatigue to the school hours, but they fasted anyway. Teachers respected their choice.
It was as part of language learning that CAVIALM students learned about difficult issues that different religious and cultural practices had raised in France. I saw the first copies of Minute, an extreme rightwing mouthpiece, in a friend’s hands at a swimming pool. Language and eating preferences were two major issues that this media organ of Le Pen emphasized. These were just two of the indicators of the complexity the mayors had to deal with. Muslim students, for example, had different preferences for food. The language school offered the most competitive prices for meals at the nearby Restaurant Scolaire Municipal at the premises of a school nearby. The mayor of Vichy wanted to make sure that his foreign guests shared the services the municipality could offer. The city acknowledged the economic and cultural value of the constant inflow of students from all over the world and particularly the exchange students from all over Europe for a quick tonic of French during summer. Above all, these students rented most of the housing pool local entrepreneurs, hotel proprietors, and homeowners had built there. The student evaluations of price-quality equations of available housing were not always complimentary but everybody recognized that the School had provided students with a roof over their heads.
I learned soon how words could not mean much unless you knew the culture. The Hotel de Ville was not a city hotel next to my new abode. French gave this name to a mayor’s office, some 36000 of them. The same Hotel de Ville would sell subsidized meal tickets to the students. In a befitting example of diverse faces of religion, some Muslim students never availed of this facility assuming that some items on the menu would clash with their religious beliefs. A bigger group of Muslim students, however, bought the meal tickets and used the facility claiming that no food item could harm or weaken the strength of their faith. These were the simplest indicators of differences that secular society and a laïque i.e., the secular, non-clerical educational system had to accommodate.
Douce France had begun to show that differences like these could attract a sizable number of voters to the extreme right wing. There were other factors to ramp up fear. Fertility rates among the Muslim population seemed to be another source of extreme right-wing nightmares. Jean Marie Le Pen, the extreme right-wing leader, apprehended that the Muslim wombs would conquer the West as the French-French population growth rate would always lag behind the birth registrations of these viciously fertile aliens. Although a stronger group in the Middle East used the same argument against Palestinians, the extreme right-wing leader had equally hostile views about both non-Christian religions in France. He found more resonance in city councils and ballot boxes as residents faced different issues of religion, food, and dress in shared spaces all over, the schools, playgrounds, and city services.
The biggest ballot box upset occurred during my second tour of duty in France. Through its various electoral procedures, inclusive, proportional, semi-proportional, or two-round methods, France allowed the electorate to ensure the presence of a wide range of political opinions in the elected fora. Presidential elections’ first round gave any organization with a sizable national presence an opportunity to contest and claim some official funding if they crossed a minimum threshold of votes cast in their favor. Generally, Extreme Right would demonstrate its strength in the first round and thus force the two front runners to figure out strategies to woo their voters. Ironically, the left-wing candidates splintered the vote in the first round of the Presidential election 2002 so much that the extreme right-wing emerged as the second largest force in the first round of Presidential elections. The topmost left-wing candidate slipped to a distant third position. The results of the first round of the Presidential election in 2002 deeply shocked France. In response, the French almost unanimously rallied around the mainstream right-wing candidate, pouring into the Parisian streets in millions to express solidarity against extremism. In the second round of the Presidential election thus, the French mainstream right and left-wing voters ensured Jacques Chirac’s victory with an unprecedented margin of over eighty-two percent.
Left-wing waited for a decade before it won a Presidential election again, in 2012. Francois Hollande spearheaded a mammoth walk against extremism three years into his term. This time extremism had not pierced into the ballot box. Extremism of a different kind had soaked Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité in blood, and I had a name that shared similarities with the perpetrators of the crime.