How to be French If Your Parents Weren’t: Paper 1

The Persona Grata was an art exposition held by the Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration and MAC VAL (Musée d’art contemporain du Val-de-Marne) in Paris between October 2018 to January 2019 (ArtFacts). The exhibit, curated by Ingrid Jurzak and Anne-Laure Flacelière, was a collection of contemporary art depicting the French welcome of immigrants to the country (ArtFacts, MCNICOLL). More than 70 artists from countries all over the world, including France, questioned the idea of hospitality through their works, and in turn questioning the foundations that the society uses in the treatment of immigrants (ArtFacts). The immigrant experience obviously changes drastically per individual due to a multitude of factors, but what is
less often explored, is the experience of the second generation immigrant. For the purpose of this paper, a second generation immigrant will be defined by the European Commission as “a person
who was born in and is residing in a country that at least one of their parents previously entered as a migrant” (European Commission).

This “welcome” into French society exhibited in Persona
Grata extends to those of the second generation and prompts the question, how does immigration affect those of the next generation? Stereotypes, prejudices, and biases surrounding immigration
affect the second generation in different, but important ways. “‘Yes, I feel French, I want to be French, but what is certain is that in the eyes of others, we [immigrants] are not always seen as French,’” said Saïd, a doctoral student of Algerian descent living in France (Beaman 44). His experience echoes those of other second generation immigrants living in France; wanting to be seen as French, and actually being perceived as such, are two extremely different realities for a migrant. Persona Grata unveils the assimilation of a second generation immigrant as a two way street between the immigrant, and the people of France; both must accept the other in order to integrate into society.

The divide between the migrant and the French has been long ingrained in the history of France. After World War II, the French government established policies to facilitate immigration into the country to provide a larger manufacturing and workforce to stimulate the economy (Grenon and Gavras). The jobs that these immigrants were working were menial and required no formal education, leaving the majority of migrants uneducated and illiterate (Grenon and
Gavras). This prevented them from assimilating into French society and started the prevalence of the social divide between the immigrant and the French (Grenon and Gavras). When French society is not willing to accept an immigrant, the social divide continues to grow.

Figure 1: “Asile” by Claude Lévêque.

Figure 1 depicts an a piece with a single chair, lightbulb with small disk shade, and the word “asile” across the back of the chair. The translation of “asile” to english is asylum. This piece is striking because it not only provokes thoughts about the physical aspects of asylum, but also the emotional aspects. The solitude of the chair in the space, illuminated only by one light, characterizes the second generation immigrant experience as well. When being rejected by
French culture, the second generation immigrant then might try to hold on to their parent’s culture, but will be rejected as well, considering they are being raised in a different country all together. This leaves the person in internal turmoil, being alienated from the cultures and ways of life they grew up knowing, and feeling ultimately alone. A second generation immigrant is physically safe, yet emotionally drained by the asylum their parents have sought out.

Exhibit 2: Unknown artist.

As previously mentioned, a second generation immigrant, although having the status of legal citizen from their country, lacks a so-called cultural citizenship. Second generation immigrants are French, by a legal definition, but are not accepted culturally by others in society.
As Beaman writes, the distinction between legal citizenship and cultural citizenship is “being a French citizen and actually being accepted as French by others” (Beaman 37). Figure 2 exemplifies this phenomenon. If the light is seen as the second generation immigrant, and the wall is the difference between the two cultures, the open space behind the wall can be viewed as French society as a whole. The light can never reach behind the wall, no matter how bright it may shine. Similarly, a second generation immigrant will never be able to integrate into French society if both groups do not accept the other. Figure 2 reveals the duality between the second generation immigrant and society; one can not become part of the other without the other’s
willingness to accept. The wall, from the perspective of the second generation immigrant, is the cultural barrier they face when assimilating into French society. This can include the language barrier, economic barriers, learning the new societal norms, the adjustment to French life, as well as more.

From society’s point of view, the wall are all the stereotypes, prejudices, and xenophobic tendencies ingrained into French society from after World War II. Policy also greatly affects the second generation immigrant experience. Immigration restrictions are highly contested worldwide, France included. As Galli and Russo write,

immigration restrictions may affect cultural assimilation through the following mechanisms:

1. stricter immigration policies push immigrants with a stronger commitment to their native culture
to settle abroad; and

2) these immigrants convey their cultural traits to their descendants.

(Galli and Russo 25).

By making it harder for people to immigrate to a country, it stratifies the population that does make it to France; those who make it, will hold on more tightly to their home cultures and values. This encourages the unwanted establishment of “non-assimilated dynasties”, as Galli and Russo describe (Galli and Russo 25). Immigration restrictions are put in place to preserve the country’s sense of national identity, in an attempt to protect their core values, which in France’s case are liberty, equality and fraternity. But, the restrictions put in place can ultimately lead to a paradoxical experience where immigrants persist in valuing their foreign
culture, instead of wanting to integrate into French society. This persistence of the immigrants’ home culture is then imposed on their children, the second generation immigrants. This, in turn, puts the second generation immigrant at a cultural disadvantage from the get go, and further builds the “wall” of separation between them, and French society previously mentioned. As Galli and Russo write, “increasing immigration restrictions for the first generation of immigrants reduces the cultural assimilation of the second generation” (Galli and Russo 31). In this way, it is easy to see how the prevention of the assimilation of the second generation is partially systematic in the way society was created. The system, in itself, creates more problems by trying to prevent immigrants from entering the country. The immigrants who are let in, are more likely to refrain
from assimilating into French society.

As a second generation immigrant, one’s ability to assimilate into society is determined by stereotypes, prejudices, xenophobia, policy, and more topics not discussed in this paper. Persona Grata was created and displayed in an attempt to demonstrate these phenomena in a way to invoke emotion in the French population. The art shown demonstrates the aspects of second generation life that are not always seen in popular media and culture, and allows
outsiders to gain a better understanding of the immigrant experience as a whole. Becoming “French” not only requires a status in legal standing, but also requires others in society to accept one as French. Persona Grata works to begin to break down the stereotypes surrounding immigration and works to create a more unified French society in its entirety.

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