Archive for June, 2008

Françafrique

June 12, 2008

Françafrique is a term that refers to France‘s relationship with Africa. It was first used by president of the Côte d’Ivoire Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who appears to have used it in a positive sense, to refer to good relations between France and Africa, but it was subsequently borrowed by François-Xavier Verschave as the title of his criticism of French policies in Africa: La Françafrique, le plus long scandale de la République.

I met Charles (a.k.a. Nasty) at the public library in Toulouse.  While playing the piano he interpellated me and wanted to talk about his music.  Charles had just moved to Toulouse from Limoges where he previously lived in a public housing complex with his Cameroonian parents and siblings.  He’s 20 now and wanted to get out on his own.  After talking for a while he came back to my house and we listened to some of the electronic music he composed in his free time.  The next day I receive a call from him about his housing situation.  He asks to stay a week or so chez moi and I oblige.

Charles’ stay is short.  After a week or so he finds an apartment while holding down a temporary painting job.  The next step in the process was moving all of his things down to Toulouse from his family’s apartment in Limoges.  He asks me to come help him move, and after some poking and prodding, I once again oblige.  This is how I met God-given, his father.

Dieudonné is a medium-sized man of 49 with a large belly who lives with his family in a 7-story building shaped like a giant elongated S (it is, in fact, affectionately known as ‘Le S’).  The S, which is surrounded by dozens of buildings of similar ambiance, is part of a 50-building or so complex of 1960s style vertical affordable housing interspersed with car-parks and empty green spaces – a phenomenon common on the outskirts of many French cities now known as Zones Urbaines Prioritaires (or ZUPs).  These are areas that look drastically different than the old, inner parts of French cities, yet nonetheless provide a place where large groups of people can live together affordably.  While many may despise them as disasters of modernist, post war-style functionalism, I can’t help but comparing them to the disaster that is the modern American suburb, where contact with humanity only exists through car windows.  In any case, Dieudonné seemed relatively glad to have his little place in Le S.

When we first arrived the room was filled with the smell of roasting mutton and spicyness.  Everyone was gathered around the room’s prominently placed, large television and intermittently chatting.  In all, Charles has 5 siblings; a brother older than him who is currently a boxer in the north; an older sister of 22 who is currently pregnant with her 3rd child; a younger brother who the parents no longer talk to; and two of the four younger children between 2 and 7 constantly running around the house and making a racket while I was there.  According to his father however, Charles is the only one who turned out able to face things on his own.

In the morning, Dieudonné offered to show me around his ZUP.  I followed him with one of the little ones, Julien, as he bought some hash in another tower and walked a mile in the opposite direction to buy some tabacco so we could smoke it.  In a cold rain, we wetly walked toward the destination as he unexpectedly poured his heart out.  His personal history began when he moved illegally to France from Cameroon in 1991, grossly overstaying his 3 month visa, living as a sans-papier (or without papers) for 8 years in the region Parisienne.  After 8 years of scrapping for money, staying at random locations, avoiding the police and establishing a Cameroonian traditional dance association (or non-profit) called “Pass to your neighbor,” Dieudonné was finally able to bring his family from Africa in 1999 after faux-marrying a citizen also of African descent.  “I could have easily just let them die in Africa,” he tells me, referring to his family.  “It had been 8 years in any case.”

Yet they arrived in France around the year 2000 and had to rapidly adjust to the shift.  Charles’ younger brother quickly became a ‘delinquent’, fighting with his parents and getting consistently kicked out of the house.  Dieudonné was very reproachful toward his son when he spoke on the subject, showing no sign of forgiveness for the vague descriptions of what seemed like serious offenses against the family (not to mention the law).  Charles tells me later that the adjustment was hardest for his younger brother as he was used to visiting friends and family and hanging out in the street after school in a generally laid-back environment.  With French society, and certainly their neighborhood, being less conducive to such habits, his behaviour quickly degenerated into delinquency.  The younger brother eventually took his parents to court so he would not have to live with them anymore.  Even while I was staying there, this subject seemed extremely touchy, representing the starting off point of several verbally-violent disputes between Dieudonné and his wife.  Yet, this didn’t stop him from talking openly with me about the subject when no one else was around, though he frequently finished such anecdotes with thoughts like, “I’m just not right in the head right now” and “What do you say we smoke some hash.”

Charles’ older sister was staying in the apartment with them when we arrived.  Intensely pregnant, with a tangly hairdo and a large sheet as a dress, she seemed to constantly shift from drinking beer (and whisky and wine and pastis), to watching tv, to yelling at her two children, 6 and 3.  When I asked her how it was possible that we were the same age yet she managed to take care of 2 kids with another on the way by herself, she replied, “I love kids.”  Dieudonné was more than candid about his discontent with her situation.  Beginning when she was 17, Dieudonné talked about her tendency to run away from home and come back months later, pregnant.  Her current pregnancy was the third time this has happened, when most recently she ran away to Paris and came back a few months ago with another bun in the oven.  The strain on him to make sure her offspring were cared for and unabandoned seemed more than he could bear (especially due to his concern that this could potentially happen a fourth time).  I wanted to ask about abortion but decided in the end to hold my tongue.  We walked back to the apartment block in the cold rain, little Julien freezing cold and unable to speak, savouring the cheap hash.

While he was a sans-papier in Paris, Dieudonné volunteered at several cultural associations and performed his dances at many events.  Appropriately nicknamed “Multiforme,” Dieudonné went clandestinely from place to place putting on shows for the surrounding fully-legal French public.  Among the many dances he performed was Makossa – literally, throwing your ass around – a dance where he places a bottle on his head, balancing it while he thrusts his hips, shaking every part of his body except for the neck up.   He shows me pictures of these events, wearing many different colors of paint and just enough cloth to cover the appropriate places on his body.  He wears an enormous smile.  These are the things that allowed him to get through his time as a sans-papier, he says; the capacity to maintain this vital lifeline to his previous life thousands of kilometers away.  In the last few years, Dieudonné has given free classes at the public community center in his ZUP in Limoges.  While not many people come, he says with interest that most intrigue comes from white French people in the community.  Today, most of his dancing happens at home with his 6 year old grand-daughter Virginie.  When Dieudonné puts on one of his recent album’s compiled just last year when he returned to Cameroon for a brief reprieve, Virginie moves her hips like a pro, imitating her father’s personally-styled moves and often flailing in a way that seems all her own.

In addition to dance, Dieudonné also plays me several cds he created or created with friends.  Most notably, one was entitled Kanibal, after a friend of his who in one instance sang metaphorically about the cannibalism in their new home; people’s tendency there to gobble one another up.  Musical reflections on modern day France by its former colonial subjects who, after continued suffering within its borders, finally achieved its oh-so-cherished citizenship, mixing jazz, latino music, and traditional African percussions was a complex phenomenon.  I mean, here were individuals who were literally born as inferieurs in the dying days of the official colonial french system, with parents and grandparents even worse off, fleeing to the origin of their subjugation only to see similar mechanisms arise in their supposedly liberated children.  Here he is, “Dieudonné”, an African Frenchman “given” by the christian “God” living in the former center in relative comfort, but still somehow feeling distinctly on the outside.

HLMs, or public and rent-controlled housing complexes in France, while disproportionately inhabited by West and North African immigrants, nonetheless house 40 to 50% of all renters in the country.  This means that while there are many people of foreign origin or immigrant descent, there are also many white French people.  In other words, it is not uncommon in these areas, while walking around, to see young white families out for a stroll or returning chez eux after going out for the afternoon.  While Dieudonné constantly reinforced his assertion that racism was rampant and that so many of the white people despised blacks, I couldn’t help but think about the urban structure in the U.S. where whites and blacks live in separate neighborhoods with whites virtually never venturing into those areas.  While here there was a diverse community with relatively maintained communal tower blocks, neatly ordered on a litter-free green carpet, in the U.S. the two distinct communities were often distinguished by extreme affluence and extreme poverty.  The Other was rarely seen thus conflict was precluded.  When I mentioned these things, Dieudonné seemed to understand what I was saying, adding that he was extremely glad he didn’t have to worry about health care or any of the public social services non-rich French citizens take for granted compared to their U.S. counterparts.  On the way out the door however I got a taste of what he’d been talking about.  Two older white neighbors on the ground floor – who he had previously mentioned being racists – had apparently mistaken three youths of various African origins as being part of Dieudonné’s entourage.  They disdainfully told Dieudonné he needed to tell his friends to stop loitering in front of their window; Dieudonné, understandably, was offended and got angry.  “Why do you immediately assume they are with me, they have nothing to do with me!”  Their reply was equally unconstructive, saying that he was always causing trouble etc., and the ensuing argument between 4 white French adults and Dieudonné in front of several young people degenerated.  What was apparent was the fact that these people clearly did not see the racial assumptions they were making in the first place, and then not owning up to them, and ending up cursing racially-derisive epithets.  Running to the car to make our train on time, I didn’t get to thank him and say goodbye, only waving to him through the window as he walked in the cold rain with Virginie and Julien.

Here are some photos of ZUPs in or around Toulouse.  Empalot is in the city limits and is generally whiter and more well off from appearances.  Le Mirail is outside city limits in the banlieu and is significantly more bleak.