21 March 2013

Les missionnaires

Lately, the buzzer at our building entrance has been ringing every day, sometimes even multiple times a day.  Because of some recent family birthdays and a sudden need for English language reading materials, the mail couriers have been delivering packages several times a week, and on Wednesdays afternoons, I've been welcoming an assortment of the boys' classmates who've opted to hang out at our place in town after school.  We've also had some unexpected visitors.  These visitors initially found us about a year ago, perhaps having seen our non-French name on the front doorbell, or they simply heard us speaking English on the street.  Now they've been pressing our front door buzzer quite frequently.  In the past two weeks alone, we have received three visits from three different sets of  Jehovah's Witnesses, all of whom seem to have the same French language Watchtower flyer to give us.  (We received such visits in Seattle too but not quite so frequently.)

Aix has a good share of religious missionaries.  In addition to the Temoins de Jéhovah (Jehovah's Witnesses), the Loubavitchers (Chabad-Lubavitchers) are here, although their local mission's website needs some refreshing, and I can't seem to find the usual standing invitation to shabbat dinner posted on the website, http://www.bethloubavitch-aix.com. Certainly, the missionaries of l'Eglise de Jésus Christ des Saints des Derniers Jours (a.k.a. the Mormons) are here, young men working in pairs in their white shirts, usually stationed right about where the Lubavitchers' menorah was set up during the past Hanukkah, near the Office de Tourisme .  Why are they all here in little Aix, or in France for that matter, with its heavy Catholic influence and relatively vibrant Islamic population? 

For one, France's officially secular orientation makes it an attractive destination for those looking to save souls.  (I wrote about the French approach to secularization in Les âmes des vivants et des morts, Oct. 30, 2012.)  France's active Catholic population is shrinking.  Between 55-65% of the French population identifies itself as Catholic, while 28% of the French declare themselves without religion (IFOP 2009 "Analyse: le catholicisme en France 2009").  Of the French 'no religions', that's nearly double the rate of Americans who declare themselves as having no religion--15% in 2008, according to Kosmin and Keysar 2008 (see "American Nones").  Of the declared French Catholics, less than 5% attended church regularly in 2006, down from 27% fifty years earlier (IFOP 2009, p. 8).  Church attendance is but one indicator of religious activity, but when looked at across time, it's clear we see decline here as well.  (The Muslim population is seemingly more active, if we use slightly different measures, mosque attendance, following Ramadan, etc., as IFOP did in 2011 "Enquête de la population d'origine musulmane".  They make up between 3-5% of the French population, with a considerably larger proportion, about 25%, here in the south of France, IFOP 2006 "Eléments d'analyse géographique de l'implantation des religions en France".)  Another potential attraction is that in Aix, anyway, there is a large young adult population.  Aix is a multi-college town, with numerous universities and grandes écoles (elite French institutions of higher education) here, full of young adults experimenting and figuring out who they are and what they want out of life.

So, religious organizations see missionary potential here.  And, as my Sociology of Religion students learn, religious organizations are no different from any other social group, they must recruit or reproduce their membership, or they will die out.  (Ever heard of the Shaking Quakers?  Their carefully crafted furniture continues to survive the test of time, but that's about all that's left of the Shakers.  They practiced celibacy, so recruitment was their only tool and eventually they couldn't compete with other groups or with the attractions of sex.  See Ken Burns' story about them, complete with poignant hymns sung by old Shaker women: Hands to Work, Heart to God.)  Religious recruitment is an important supplement to religious reproduction, and it is so important that Mormons and Lubavitchers and Jehovah's Witnesses send missionaries all over the world, teaching them to speak the local languages and to do religious outreach, while distributing translated religious publications.  Going on mission is a rite of passage for many young Mormons (a young Mitt Romney fulfilled his Mormon mission in France), while making home visits or contacts is a monthly requirement for Jehovah's Witnesses, if they want to be considered members of good standing, and if they hope to maintain or increase their numbers. That means that even if we kindly but firmly keep the Witnesses' visits to a minimum (or try to ignore their doorbell rings), they will keep coming back. Their religious survival depends on it.

14 March 2013

Une porte fermée

This week we had the frustrating experience of losing access to our rental parking spot due to a poorly-publicized changing of the garage door sensors.  The first evening my spouse was caught between two closed garage doors, unable to go forward towards our section of the garage nor to exit (or even to call for help due to weak phone reception).  The next day I watched helplessly through the grating on one side of the center garage door as the new transmitter I had been given failed to open the door immediately in front of me yet worked nicely for the one beyond that leads to the street.  On both occasions, we could see where we wanted to go, the rewards were tantalizingly close, but because of une porte fermée (a closed door), we couldn't quite get there. 

That's not so different from the experiences of women that I wrote about last time in regards to salaries (La Politesse, March 2013).  In addition, women can often see the occupational and promotional opportunities above them, through the plafond de verre (the glass ceiling) but they can't quite reach them, at least not in the numbers that we should expect, not in France and not in the U.S.  A similar situation faces immigrants, particularly those from poorer countries-of-origin, for whom the rewards of a better or at least hopefully more comfortable life may be all too visible but not so easily reachable.  This is the theme in the témoignage I am currently reading (which is a kind of memoir, or personal testimony) by an Algerian Muslim immigrant who grew up in the Paris suburb of Val Fourré.  (About 13% of French immigrants come from Algeria.)  In Du côté de chez moi, Salima Senini* (2013) tells of life in the isolated city housing project, and the thrilling glimpses of French mainstream culture she gets, through television, school, and eventually, through her reading of French literature.  For her family and most of her immigrant neighbors, living the comfortable French lifestyle though is beyond their grasp.  Her father works several jobs to pay the rent and feed his large family and to get them to Algeria for summer visits, so for Senini, the desire to celebrate Christmas and receive gifts, to spend holidays skiing or frankly, anywhere outside of the immigrant ghetto, to wear more fashionable clothing, all these have to be satisfied with infrequent discount shopping trips to the city and or through dreams depicted in her made-up answers to school assignments about what gifts she received or to questions about where she spent her holidays.  (The teachers didn't realize that not all of their students celebrate Christmas?!  These same teachers also suggested that the  immigrant kids who spoke French and a tribal language at home were not 'really' bilingual because the other non-world language didn't count as a real language.)

Most of Senini's seven siblings don't complete school, ending up in strictly manual or blue collar jobs, just like all of the other neighbors' kids.  Unfortunately, they and others like them are often among those that suffer disproportionately in times of economic downturns such as we are experiencing in France right now.   This can put to a halt any progress made towards those elusive immigrant dreams.  (We have a family friend in Washington state who no doubt sees this same thing over and over again in her work helping immigrants and refugees learn English and find gainful employment in their new homes.)  Here in France, unemployment is the highest since 1999, at 10%. (See France24, French joblessness climbs to highest rate, March 7, 2013.)  It's over 25% for those under age 25, and some of whom are indeed immigrant youth or youth of immigrant parents, especially here in the south of France.  And, the sectors that continue to see declines in the past few economic quarters are precisely those in heavy blue collar (and immigrant) sectors, such as construction, mechanical work (vehicle repair for example), transportation, manufacturing (see INSEE report, in English, Ongoing decrease in payroll employment March 13, 2013).   Thus, glass ceilings, and open and then suddenly locked doors remain a fact of life for many immigrants, here and elsewhere.

*(Click here for a French language radio interview with Senini on the release of her book.  The English edition of her book from the Arenes publishing house seems to be forthcoming, and is entitled In search of myself.)

Here's another door that is hard to penetrate.  It leads to Le Panthéon national in Paris, that final resting place for illustrious contributors to the glorious French Republic (as decided by the current president of the Republic).  Among the many men's remains, there are remains of two women (next to their spouses) and one person of color.

08 March 2013

La politesse

Sitting Woman, by Thomas Houseago, Parcours l'art a l'endroite à Aix en Provence Jan-Feb. 2013 Place l'universite
On this International Women's Day, I am reminded of Caitlin Moran's suggestion in her book How to be a woman (2012) that the basic goal of feminism can really be broken down to the pursuit of basic politeness in society.  That we should treat each other with civility, regardless of our gender seems pretty reasonable, and it's even more appealing to me, if that call for politeness extends beyond gender, where we extend civil behavior to all, regardless of age, ethnoracial origin, or other social features.  Treating everyone politely would make it much harder for us to overlook or treat people poorly or less than equally.  After all, that is a basic lesson of humanism.

Regardless of whether we are pursuing politeness in the name of feminism or humanism, la politesse (politeness) does pose some challenges because many aspects of civil behavior are in fact cultural, even if the basic idea of civility is universal.  For example, here in France, politeness is tied up in the French language and discourse as it is in many other languages, which poses challenges for English-speakers.  There is the polite vous form that I have to remember to use when speaking to people that I do not know well or with whom some social distance is appropriate: school teachers, market vendors, shop clerks.  (Its equivalent in Finnish has slipped so much that I never properly learned to use it particularly since I had few opportunities to use it, and in English, well, you is you).  Then there are the polite French phrases that are still used quite regularly; the obligatory bonjours and au revoirs when entering a shop are easy enough, but it is the enchantées (nice to meet you) and the avec plaisirs (with pleasure) that trip me up because they seem so flowery.  On the other hand, I also find the 'you're welcome' confusing here.  Very formally one says je vous en prie, but most people say de rien which to my ear sounds dismissive and ungraceful because its direct translation implies 'it's nothing' even though it is a perfectly acceptable and very popular response to merci.   In American English we have slipped into the usage of  'no problem' as a response to thank you, which a friend and I agreed we didn't like for the same reasons de rien resonates poorly with me.  I want my thank you to be accepted firmly, perhaps even avec plaisir (with pleasure)!

Certainly, my understanding of Moran is that she is referring to much more than just how we greet people on the street (and we know that the actions accompanying the language we use also vary significantly, from the bisous that French give each other on their cheeks, to the handshakes or head nods or bows that others do).  Moran is advocating politeness in all aspects of our lives and in all societies.  For example, are we being polite in how we treat people at work or at home?  Are we being polite about how we hire people, pay them, evaluate them, promote or move them, and even let them go?  Are we being polite in our exchanges with people in our daily routines, at school, at home, in our shopping?  Are we sharing, are we taking turns, are we being mindful of each other?  Unfortunately, we still have much work to do in this regard.  My SOC 101 students got a look at some impolite wage gaps in the U.S. in class this week (click here and see if you feel as outraged as several of my SOC 101 students: Why is her paycheck smaller, May 18, 2010. The New York Times), and similar wage gaps exist in France too. (Le salaire des femmes dans le privé inférieur de 28% à celui des hommes, March 8, 2013, Le Monde)  Politeness is more than just saying the polite words; it is also in doing the polite, or by extension, the fair, or equal thing.