Solidarity is everyday choice in colourful, chaotic Nice

Having lived in three European countries, France seems the least segregated, writes Jessica Smith, who recently moved to Nice

20 January 2017

ON my block, there is a synagogue, a street of halaal butchers, a meditation centre, and a row of African restaurants and hairdressers.

When I arrived here two months ago, I asked friends which neighbourhood I had moved to. Was it Jewish? African? Muslim? The answer was: “Yes.”

France is still reeling from the worst terrorist attacks since the Second World War, and with Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump looming on the international horizon, these may not seem much like times of solidarity.

However, my experience of day-to-day life in France is much friendlier, less dramatic, and above all less segregated than it may seem on the news. Perhaps it is because I am also an ‘étrangère’ (foreigner), or because I tend to be fairly open, but I frequently find that those in ‘minority groups’ are some of the friendliest people I meet.

Conversely, there’s no denying the racism I’ve come across here, and people wear it on their sleeves more than they do in other parts of Europe: which can be shocking.

Yet having lived in London, Brussels, and Nice – three cities that have been hit by terrorist attacks over the last decade – Nice feels the least segregated of the three.

London has its Jamaican and Bangladeshi neighbourhoods, Brussels its distinctly white and distinctly North African quarters, but where I live in Nice, everyone is thrown together in a noisy, chaotic jumble.

At first, I found this surprising, even a little threatening given the racial tensions that are supposed to exist. Increasingly, however, I find that my experience depends on my approach.

November saw the first anniversary of the attacks on the Bataclan, the Stade de France, and restaurant terraces in Paris. It was also the 19th ‘Semaine de la Solidarité’ (Solidarity Week), which saw thousands of debates, plays, concerts, conferences, films and exhibitions organised across France with the aim of tackling prejudice and the ‘retreat into self; the fear of the other.’

Having been in the vicinity of 9/11, the 2005 London bombings, and the Brussels attacks, and having moved to Nice just after this summer’s Bastille Day attack, what I witnessed with all those events was not people shutting down in fear, but coming out of their burrows to talk to each other: shocked and scared, what we needed was human contact.

People wanted to talk to neighbours, to come together to pray and/or drink, to linger in the street for a chat.

This coming-together can feel less urgent and more difficult outside of times of crisis, and we also live in the age of the internet, which can isolate us even further. With its easy slogans and campaigns, and the false sense of connection it provides, the internet is part of the problem.

The challenge is twofold: first to look up from our smartphones and computers, and then to talk to people whose differences may inspire fear.

A cartoon by French feminist illustrator Maeril in the wake of Donald Trump’s election advised those witnessing Islamophobic harassment to sit beside the victim and strike up a friendly chat about anything at all, creating a safe space around the person and ignoring the attacker.

This approach seems almost revolutionary in its ordinariness, and that is precisely why it is achievable. It bridges the fear of the other that causes so much trouble, and yet often, can be so easily overcome – simply by reaching out and talking to one another.

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