February 20, 2008

Formation Civique

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of - no, in point of fact, I was required to attend "French Civic Training." Since I was lucky enough to get a Carte de Séjour, I apparently needed to learn a few things about being a quasi-French citizen.

I made it to the class (which started at 9am and lasted until 5pm) a bit late and walked into a run-down classroom to find about 30 people sitting in chairs around the periphery of the room. Most of the people were from past French colonies - west African countries, or places like Martinique, etc. In fact, only a Russian and I broke the geographic trend in the room. (We were also the only two whose native language wasn’t French).

Our instructor for the day (Jean-Luc) was a frog-like man (this had absolutely nothing to do with his nationality…really – just the fact that his eyes were spread too far apart and seemed to pop away from his face…and the fact that his smile stretched as far as his eyes above). He seemed to enjoy the fact I was American. As I entered I signed an attendance sheet and Jean-Luc asked, “Would you like to join us for lunch, although I’m sorry to say in advance it won’t be a hamburger” (and then directed this add-on to the rest of the class, “for the petite americaine”). I smiled and laughed a little bit.

I sat down and watched as a woman from Guyane came to the door of the classroom with her newborn baby strapped onto her back. She entered and Jean-Luc said bluntly: “This is not possible. Trop petit. Too little. He will cry.” He sent her away and said (absurdly), “You’ll have to come back when the baby is older.” (Remember, no one is attending this little gathering because they are interested in the subject; it is a requirement to work and live in France). I guess ‘integration’ is tricky if it involves a baby.

We had to introduce ourselves and talk about what we were interested in learning that day. I said, sort of cheekily, “I’m really interested in learning how to become French.” Jean-Luc responded just as cheekily, “This is not possible for you, my dear.”

The day continued with invaluable instruction regarding French symbols – such as the tri-colored flag and the bust of Marianne, which apparently, at various times, has been modeled after Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot and Laetitia Casta (showcased below). Given the length of time Jean-Luc spent commenting on each of these French ornaments (the women – mind you), I gathered that these must be significant particulars for our civic training. To be fair to Jean-Luc, the time he devoted these beauties was far less, and with far fewer scenarios, than what he devoted to France’s new first lady, the “ravishing Bruni.” French femininity. I suppose he was right to devote such time to the subject.

Laïcité was the next subject at hand. (Secularism, I suppose, is the best translation for this, although I do not think that word actually quite grasps the sense of the word in French and for the French). There was, of course, the classic school discussion. No overt symbols of religion in schools. Jean-Luc did mention that a small cross, worn around the neck, is perfectly unobjectionable. Handy.

I managed to pull Jean-Luc aside at the awkward cafeteria-style lunch. (Where people were sitting at long, rectangular tables, just staring at each other mostly). I told him that I was really looking forward to learning important ways to be French today and that I hoped that in the second half of the day, we might touch on those things. For example, I continued, how to go on strike, how to deliver unparalleled insults to other drivers, those sorts of things. He laughed at me and asked if I thought I would make it through the afternoon without a coke.

That afternoon, we actually did touch on some of my desired curriculum. One of the fundamental rights of French citizens is the right to strike (right up there with the right to obtain a job – connotation: not a privilege or ability or good fortune - a right).

Anyone with a connection to France knows that strikes are part of the fabric of living. Cities freeze because of metro strikes that can last a few weeks. (Cab drivers were just on strike in Paris). I was delighted that the subject came up – so I raised my hand and asked, “Is it possible to go on strike all alone?” The class really enjoyed my question (and my French at the same time, I am sure). Jean-Luc basically looked like he wanted to give me a high-five. (The worst part is that he answered my question pretty seriously using a hypothetical example of Carla Bruni…if she were a cashier at Printemps and she were the only cashier to strike).

(Another amusing example of Carla Bruni came up when we talked about the balance of powers in a democracy. It had something to do with a car crash and her being responsible in court even though her husband is le petit Sarkozy).

Our session ended with the motto projected onto the white screen, loud and clear:

Choisir de vivre en France, c'est avoir la volonté de s'intégrer à la société française et d'accepter de respecter les valeurs fondamentales de la République.

Choosing to live in France is to have the desire to integrate into French society and to accept and respect the fundamental values of the Republic.

…to which, Jean-Luc added, “There are some countries – the United States for example – which allow small pockets of foreigners to preserve their language, their very culture from their home country – to reproduce things. Not in France. We need to integrate, we need to be all together, agreeing on our culture.”

The day ended with a lag time of 40 minutes (Jean-Luc couldn’t let us leave before 4:45pm even though we had finished early). But, he improvised and created a memorable off the cuff awards ceremony. Each of us had earned a certificate of completion and he called us one by one to collect our certificate, to shake hands with him and to sit back down again. I congratulated my fellow students as they walked past my chair.

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