When being fluent in French isn't enough in the City of Lights

Sophie Matlary
Saturday 22 Jul 2023

The recent riots in France reveal a profound division in the country. Street-fighting youth in Paris connect with the 17-year-old boy Nahel, who was shot by police on the 27th of June in West Paris.


Nahel met a tragic death at the hands of police officers who displayed reckless aggression, brutally using excessive force against an innocent child. French people normally refer to youths like Nahel as "voyous," a derogatory term meaning mere troublemakers and delinquents who are often ethnically African or Arab.

These youngsters face insurmountable barriers to integration, perpetuating the gap in French society, and although I can't live their experience, I can only listen to their stories and anger. 

The riots and street clashes signify the early stages of a broader and enduring rift between those considered "French" and those labelled "non-French." This division reflects, to some extent, a desired segregation, which I believe traces its roots back to the colonial era when France promoted assimilation rather than integration.

Being a Hungarian Norwegian residing in Paris, I find my position unique, for contrary to many in this vibrant city, I am not an immigrant from a non-European state; yet, I perceive Paris through the lens of an outsider who views the beauty and intricacies of Paris with a new perspective. I also have my distinct way of appreciating and understanding the city, offering a blend of my mixed heritage as I navigate it.

Against the odds, my mother, hailing from a quiet village in Norway called Mandal, encountered my then-refugee father by chance at a church. Despite their divergent backgrounds, my mother defied expectations and rose to become Norway's Secretary of State. Their story remains one of perseverance and triumph over adversity.

I now live in the heart of Paris. As a white Norwegian who speaks French fluently, I find it difficult to fully assimilate. It's important to clarify that I am not facing discrimination but grappling with the complexities of cultural integration in Paris. But what is there for me to lose as an educated white woman? 

As a white person, there are little or no power institutions that can limit my opportunities, and I do not need to worry if people use a slur to describe me or if I need to speak posh French. In all likelihood, the inability to both speak posh French and assimilate mostly affects racialized groups such as the one Nahel belonged to. It is how you speak that matters in Paris.

My friends view me as privileged, and I understand their perception. While I had the privilege of growing up in an intellectually enriching family, economic privilege was not always prevalent. As I got older, I became more aware that my parents faced financial challenges, yet they made sacrifices to provide us with the best education they could. This would later be vital in my nomadic life.

In Paris, social tact, etiquette, and overall social interactions are deeply ingrained from an early age.

These norms are shaped by the neighbourhood you live in, the educational institutions you attend, and the friendships and relationships you establish, with language acting as a strong dividing force among Paris’s 12 million residents.

Therefore, understanding these social dynamics is crucial for navigating the complexities of living in the city. Such an understanding also highlights the influence of social context, language, and various factors in shaping the city's societal fabric.

Growing up in a household emphasizing the significance of navigating social structures gave me a unique perspective. From Oslo to Cairo, where I became fluent in Arabic, to Budapest and London, in a leafy suburb of Kensington, I never experienced the challenges of fitting in different environments. Switching between accents disrupts norms: posh or immigrant, my complex background thrives in Paris, challenging social etiquette.

‘Posh French’ is spoken French that excludes slang, curses, foreign words, and 'le verlan', a lingo revived in Parisian hip-hop in the 90s. It prioritizes a refined form of the language, free from such elements. I did adapt to the linguistic style of a first-generation North African immigrant, incorporating Arabic elements into my 'normal' French.

Millions of low-income Parisians speak Street French, while the "accepted" version emphasizes word endings and pauses. Like other posh European languages, it grants authority and distance, requiring listeners to concentrate. Politeness is emphasized, using "thou" instead of "you."

Posh French dominates in prestigious areas, such as Paris's 5th, 6th, 8th, and 16th arrondissements, where status and wealth matter. However, language becomes fast-paced, slang-infused, and influenced by diverse global vocabulary in the surrounding suburbs, such as the 91, 93, and 94. The language there tends to be more upbeat and open to engagement from the outside. The notion that language can both divide and unite holds true for Paris.

It has been more than a year since I began living in Paris. On many occasions, I have had to choose between disrupting the status quo or conforming to social expectations, often ending in challenging the norms. Why? because French society must recognize the extent of its segregation. As individuals cannot perceive their situation objectively, I find it essential to play a part, however small, in shedding light on these issues. 

My acquaintance with a well-off French family has taught me that Parisians tend to avoid difficult situations, considering them shameful and a waste of time and energy. This behaviour explains why Parisians are often perceived as distant and arrogant. They often disregard anything that doesn't align with their French-centric narrative, for they still see France as the centre of the world in terms of language, culture, cuisine, and politics.

Paris can be a complex and daunting city for foreigners and immigrants, often leading to questions about proper behaviour, social faux pas, making friends, adapting at work, and encounters with perceived rudeness. As someone fluent in French, I possess an understanding of ‘Parisian arrogance’ that doesn't find it offensive as much as bitterly entertaining.

Being a "third culture kid" who is skilled in navigating different cultures, languages, and social cues, I embrace my linguistic superpowers. I enjoy playing with social etiquette and societal norms, and I have come to recognize that language use in Paris can sometimes create exclusion rather than unity.

This ability to effortlessly navigate cultural contexts and challenge social norms empowers me and provides a unique lens through which I experience Paris. It allows me to engage with the city in a way that combines my linguistic skills with a sense of adventure, enabling me to bridge gaps and explore the intricacies of social dynamics.

Remaining mindful of the impact your actions may have on others is crucial. While playing with social etiquette can be entertaining, it's essential to approach it with respect and sensitivity, ensuring that it doesn't inadvertently alienate or offend those around you. Striking a balance between adaptation and authenticity will contribute to meaningful connections and a richer experience in any cultural context, including Paris.

France exhibits societal segregation, and Paris, as its capital, exemplifies this division. The country's history of peasant uprisings against wealth and power lies in the distant past. Poverty and affluence often coexist just a few metro stations apart. 

After arriving in Paris from Cairo in 2022, I formed friendships spanning from the impoverished La Chapelle neighbourhood in the north to the bourgeois residents of the 5th district. The local nickname 'crack hill' referred to the intriguing yet concerning experience of the area where drug-dependent individuals were prevalent. Unfortunately, the government continued to relocate addicts to La Chapelle, despite the associated risks. In La Chapelle Neighbourhood, a simple greeting like 'salaam' or 'bonjour la mifa' (mifa being family in le verlan) can take you a long way. I was surprised by how easily I assimilated. I even met street gangsters, or 'voyous,' who opened up about their struggles and dreams.

Often in Paris, I feel there is no real integration of the ‘other ’ unless the ‘other is exactly like you’. My neighbours, who saw me as coming from a wealthy background, told me that they found it peculiar that I sat down with young people in a street café – a big faux pas unless you are there to buy drugs. “People might confuse you with someone from their social class”. Such remarks seemed rather exaggerated, rude, and discriminating. 

From La Chappelle, I moved to Belleville or Tunis-ville, a neighbourhood that will remind you of North Africa because of shops and restaurants serving Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan food. Once there, I was hosted by a Parisian-Tunisian family that introduced me to life halfway between Paris and North Africa, spiced up with ‘harissa’, the world-famous Tunisian chilli paste. I put it on almost every meal. The family spoke French with Arabic words in every second sentence. Here, I felt at home.

I explored halal butchers for affordable fresh meat and haggled at vibrant fruit and veg markets reminiscent of Cairo. The savoured Tunisian delicacies, such as keftaji, slata meshouia, and fricassee sandwiches, took me back to Oslo. I wonder if my Egyptian Arabic gave me away.

It's a recurring narrative of formerly colonized peoples harbouring resentment towards the colonizers. While Tunisians, for example, appreciate Paris, they find fault with Parisians, perceiving them as grumpy and closed-minded. Formal French speakers often respond with remarks such as "If you dislike our way of life, go back to your home”. 

In my last stop in Paris's 5th arrondissement, mingling with the local bourgeoisie, I sensed a noticeable change in me. My time in Porte de la Chappelle and Belleville had left its mark on me. I had become more assertive, direct, and decisive in expressing my needs, preferences, and dislikes. Some considered this linguistic shift to a more straightforward approach impolite, as I used phrases like "frankly" and "I'd like" instead of the more polite alternatives.

Unknowingly, people change their social class through language. Though still the same person, I acquired mannerisms and etiquette from a different lesson that would be hard for poor, less educated Parisians.

Amusingly, I have become the disruptor of social norms by embracing slang and verlan in my daily interactions. It has led me to question the necessity and authenticity of a refined French identity versus an excluded, uneducated perception. As France becomes less and less inclusive and collective, last week’s tragedy being a case in point, language constitutes a suitable place to start to avoid more turmoil.

*The writer is a political scientist specialized in migration

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