By Dr, Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 08, 2017
Villers-Cotterets, a small town in France, is about 75 kilometres north of Paris. On Sunday last, after having arrived at Gare du Nord, the main railway station in France, I traveled through the Retz forest and lush fields yellowed by the colza (canola) flowers on my way to Villers-Cotterets. I got to Villers-Cotterets in a heightened state of anticipation ready to explore the place in which Alexandre Dumas was born.
Villers-Cotterets is inundated with everything Dumas. A short walk from the train station—no more than 50 yards—takes one to 46 rue Alexandre Dumas (Andre Dumas Street) where one discovers a modest concrete mansion. A plaque on the front gate of this building announces: “Dans cette maison est ne Alexandre Dumas, Le 24 Julliet, 1802″ [Alexandre Dumas was born in this building on July 24, 1802”].
Although France honours its writers and its thinkers, Villers-Cotterets goes overboard in its adulation of the Dumases. There is an enormous statue of Alexandre Dumas at the centre of the town. The Alexandre Dumas café sits in the shadow of the statue. The Alexandre Dumas Museum is in walking distance from the house and the statue. Displayed on its wall is an enormous canvas of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the father, whose statute was destroyed in 1942.
Alex Dumas was one of the most decorated generals in Napoleon’s army. He was with Napoleon when he (Napoleon) invaded Egypt in 1798 to add to his glory. Andrew Hussey reminds us that Napoleon’s aggression with Egypt marked the start of “a French lust for all things Oriental that culminated in the acquisition—by force—of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.” All this aggression was conducted in the name of France’s “civilising mission” to the world (Andrew Hussey, The French Intifada).
General Dumas’ father married Marie Cessette, an enslaved Haitian woman, in 1762. His son, Alexandre, proudly proclaimed his blackness. And this is France’s problem. In spite of its claims to liberty, equality and fraternity it never fully integrated blacks and other minorities into its society. The French principle of laicité embedded in the French constitution, makes it “illegal to distinguish individuals on the grounds of their religion [or race]”.
I spent Sunday evening in Ville Blain, a hamlet of about 50 people, as the guest of Daniel and Thelma (not their real names) who were born in Ireland and the Netherlands respectively. Although they have lived in France for over 30 years, neither of them is eligible to vote in today’s election. They are citizens of the European Union. Their daughter Julia can. She became a French citizen a few weeks before her 16th birthday. Before that, she was considered Irish because of her father’s nationality. She had to apply for naturalisation to become a French citizen.
When I asked Julia who she was going to vote for in today’s election, she quietly announced she was going to vote for Emmanuel Macron although about 90 per cent of her fellow villagers voted for the National Front (NF) in the last election. Daniel says he and Thelma have never felt French even though they have lived in Ville Blain for over 30 years and brought up their three children there.
In France identity is a central question: who is French really matters. This is where Marine Le Pen and the NF come in. While walking along Alexandre Dumas Street, I was attracted to a poster that read: “Choisir La France. Grand Meeting Marine a’ Villepinte. Le 1er Mai-12 H. Parc des Exposition de Paris—Nord Hall 5B.” I learnt later that Villers-Cotterets supports Le Pen fully.
May 1 is Labour Day in France. For several years the NF has held its meeting in Paris to proclaim the virtues of what it means to be French. Its slogan, “Choisir Le France [Choose France or French First],” is analogous to Donald Trump’s slogan in the last US presidential election: “Make America Great Again” or “America First”. Some of us couldn’t help but read Trump’s slogan as “Make America White Again”.
A similar sentiment characterised the Brexit vote in June last year. I was in Britain when the Brexit vote occurred. The morning after the vote I asked two women—one black, the other white—who worked at Marks & Spencer what they thought about the outcome of the vote. They responded in unity: “It is a good thing for Britain. Too many people are coming to Britain.” Both of them believed immigrants were taking over their country thereby making Britain less British. Each woman wanted to reclaim her Britishness. I could not help but hear a trace of a West Indian accent in the black respondent.
On my trip from Gare du Nord to Villers-Cotterets I asked a French commuter (a woman) who she was voting for in the election. Unhesitatingly she declared: “Macron.”
“Why?” I asked her.
Her reply was instantaneous: “We do not want another Trump in this country.”
This is the urgency that grips French people as they vote today.
[On Tuesday, I will talk about Marine Le Pen’s political rally in Villepinte, Paris that I attended on Monday last].