I teach in two middle schools in Paris as part of TAPIF (Teaching Assistant Program in France). This is my second year participating in TAPIF; last year I taught in two middle schools in the district of Yvelines, the western suburbs of Paris. In both years I’ve had very diverse classes. I believe many of my students are first-generation immigrants from African countries, and especially from the Maghreb. Since I am the English assistant and my focus is speaking and listening skills, I’m usually assigned small groups of students who are the strongest in English among their peers. I’ve been able to have fairly substantive discussions with some of my older students and hear their reactions to Donald Trump and his xenophobic remarks about Muslims and people of color.
French law forbids giving one’s religious or political preferences in school — I have the impression these laws tend to be more strictly adhered to in France than in the U.S. However, my students often ask me if I like Donald Trump and whether I voted for him. I feel obliged to tell them,” no I didn’t,” so that they will feel at ease with me in the classroom. My students seem to be less interested in the upcoming French presidential election. They assure me that Marine LePen is very bad and probably won’t be elected. They are so unanimous in this opinion that I don’t think it goes against anyone’s sense of neutrality.
Most of my friends here in France don’t believe LePen will be elected either. I usually come back with “We never expected Brexit or Trump, so be careful!” They often cite her lack of concrete economic policies as the ultimate weak point that will prevent her from gaining too much support, even among people who might support her positions on immigration. I am worried though; I know that I live in a liberal bubble here, where city hall is run by a coalition of the socialist, communist and green parties. I’ve read that Breitbart has opened up French and German websites, so I believe that there may be more support for LePen than the French news media has led us to believe. In any case, everyone I’ve spoken to assumes that LePen will make it past the first round (all French elections have two rounds, a week apart).
Overall, I’m surprised my friends and colleagues aren’t more worried or disgusted. One colleague told me that reactions are varied: some believe it’s the end of the world while most find it alarming but don’t think it will affect their daily lives very much. On TV, Trump is often the butt of a joke. I sometimes wonder if people appear calm because his dubbed voice on the news is so neutral. It’s pretty ridiculous to hear the robotic translation of Donald Trump’s speeches with the sound of his actual voice in the background. Like Americans, it seems the French are tired of pundits and the 24-hour news cycle. The covers of the Charlie Hebdo magazines have been interesting to follow. As is typical, they only narrowly avoid being offensive, in some cases. I think they save themselves by expressing compassion for the situation in America, even as they maintain a satirical tone.
I recently watched a round table discussion of the high points of Obama’s presidency, according to French pundits. They showed a clip from Barack Obama’s speech at the memorial service of Reverend Clementa Pinckney and expressed their admiration for the eloquence of his long pause before launching into Amazing Grace. One commentator said, Whatever your disagreements you may have with his policies and decisions in office, it cannot be denied that he has a very strong connection with his people (the American people) and that he can sense the needs of his audience and respond to them in his speeches.” It’s been easy to be an American in Paris while Obama has been president, because he is so well loved here. I remember receiving less than polite treatment in some restaurants when I visited France and Spain while George W. Bush was president, and I hope this won’t again become the case.
I’ve often wished that my students weren’t so well-informed and intent upon following world events, because I worry that his remarks have only increased their feelings of marginalization in Occidental society. One of my best students last year, Abdel, often made remarks that revealed he had memorized the US News and World Reports’ ranking of the best American universities and dreamed of going to one, especially MIT or Columbia — like Obama. He now has only two and a half years of high school left; it makes me sad to think about how much more difficult attaining his dream will be.
Hannah Carlson graduated from Smith College in 2015 with a degree in Comparative Literature. She returned to France upon graduating after spending her junior year in Paris. She teaches English in two middle schools in the 17th arrondissement.by