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.

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