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Uneasy Belonging: Mapping Geographies of Identity

Marjorie Attignol Salvodon

French Universalism – From the "Ideal" Citizen to the "Real" Child
My book-in-progress, Fictions of Childhood: The Roots of Identity in Contemporary French Narratives, explores the meaning of French identity, belonging, and multiculturalism in contemporary French fiction and film. When the French government -- ­driven by a fear of "communautarisme," the French version of "special rights" -- outlawed the wearing of the veil in public schools in 2004, the ensuing debates signaled a crisis in French universalism. Tellingly, the weight of this new law fell directly on the shoulders of French children, girls in particular. Fictions of Childhood discusses French universalism by re-evaluating its merits and pitfalls through the exploration of childhood across cultures, centuries and genres. My study draws on a range of theoretical approaches to show how childhood narratives provide a map of the shifting social parameters of France, redrawing the very boundaries of French identity.

When translating Nina Bouraoui’s Garçon manqué, I saw the need for a book-length study exploring the cultural and historical contexts of identity and the figure of the child in contemporary France. Childhood is generally viewed as an ideal stage of life, a paradise that we inevitably must leave; this vision is a vestige of how French universalism imagines an ideal French citizen devoid of all markers of difference. The selected films and texts unveil the mystery of childhood and tell the stories of young French protagonists who embody differences -- cultural, gendered, racial, and sexual -- that challenge the Republican ideal citizen in the world of fiction.

French writers such as Albert Camus, Marguerite Duras, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, and Michel Tournier have written about cultural difference in the lives of children and adolescents. Gisèle Pineau – a French writer of Guadeloupean origin -, plumbs the complexities of French multicultural identity in a fundamentally different way. Her provocative work weaves the reality of French multiculturalism into a discussion of the frayed strands of French universalism. Neither belonging to any one cultural community, nor associated with any movement in French literature, such as immigrant literature, new women’s writing, existentialist writing, or the New New Novel, though frequently categorized as an "Antillean" writer, Pineau defies easy categorization, unlike the venerated writers mentioned above, writing at a time of fervent collective introspection. At no other time in the twentieth century have the French legal, political, cultural, and social discourses converged to publicly address the meaning of French identity. Amendments made to the law of nationality in 1986 and 1994, requiring French-born children to officially declare allegiance to France after the age of 18 in order to become legally French, provoked virulent reactions throughout France. Against this backdrop, the Dreyfus Affair (1894), the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962), and the electoral advances of the right-wing National Front Party in the legislative elections (2002) have foreshadowed the current moment when cultural politics, French identity, and the history of French xenophobia, anti-semitism, and racism come under scrutiny.

Pineau stress the transnational nature of the French empire, in her role as a literary double agent who views French identity against the grain, a position that stems as much from her own complex multicultural heritage as her artistic vision. The selected texts and films help counter received notions about children and childhood through its portrayal of child narrator-protagonists who make prophetic revelations: marginalized children who denounce French society and their own families for neglecting them, children who transgress the boundaries of gender and sexuality, and children of the French empire who tell French history, from their own perspectives. Yet, in my book these defiant figures are contrasted with weaker counterparts: children who are abused, children who are despised, and children who suffer tremendous hardship. The crisis in French universalism is mirrored in the portrayal of child figures as victors and victims; the cinematic and literary representations make visible the relational dynamic between France and her former colonies, effectively underlying the invisible history of colonialism and post-colonialism that continues to shape French identity.

Analyzing the perspective of the Guadeloupean child protagonist, I discuss Un papillon dans la cité by Gisèle Pineau and the myriad depictions of French identities across time and space. Guided by the work of Mickaëlla Périna on the ambiguous status of the French Overseas Departments and by Jacques Derrida’s incisive critique of his own ambiguous relationship to French citizenship (and to the French language), having been granted French citizenship through decree and having it revoked by the Vichy government, I discuss the inherent contradictions of belonging to places whose legal and political status change over the course of space and time.

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