The recent events in Paris surrounding the Charlie Hebdo attacks have sparked a series of intense conversations about immigration, integration, tolerance, religion, and free speech in France. These conversations range from constructive and thought-provoking to ignorant and downright offensive. One such “controversial” voice in the conversation is Fox News, which infamously issued a report denoting “no-go zones,” neighborhoods in Paris characterized by a heavy concentration of Muslim residents.
While this report in and of itself was offensive, inaccurate, and short-sighted, the responses to it sparked a different sentiment. Parisians were quick to defend their neighborhoods, and in doing so looked to assert the “safeness” of these no-go zones by proving just how French they are. One such rebuttal was taken up by popular food blog, Paris by Mouth, in a post titled “Eating & Drinking in the No-Go Zones.” The post lists a variety of “high quality” eating and drinking establishments in the very neighborhoods that Fox News likened to Baghdad, quipping “how wonderful for Baghdad if their streets are also filled, as these districts are, with modern bistros, craft breweries, natural wine haunts, vegan cafés, and spots for Philly cheesesteak.”
I understand that the point of the article is to refute the claims that these neighborhoods are cesspools of crime and violence, isolated in the midst of the illustrious French capital and devoid of any attractive features to visit. However, I find the method of using Western establishments to prove safety and value in these districts problematic. The restaurants and bars listed in the post are mostly listed under the category of “modern French” or American (and its various trend-spawns such as gluten-free, burgers, coffeeshops). The list focuses on Western cuisine, with a couple nods to Asia, and notably only lists one establishment associated with North Africa – but even this establishment is still a boulangerie, run by an award-winning Tunisian. The message that this sends is that it is largely Western culture (expressed through food) that makes these neighborhoods acceptable, safe, and desirable to visit. Again, an issue inherent in France and French culture, the immigrants that are a large part of the French population are underrepresented. What’s more, this list gives insight into the “gentrification” of neighborhoods that were once considered dangerous, and now taken over by so-called hipsters. This includes the appropriation of ethnic neighborhoods as edgy, cool, cheap places to live and hang out, spurring a response by eating and drinking establishments to cater to the new clientele.
Sened Dhab posts a more accurately representative piece on the same topic, noting establishments that represent his native Tunisia as well as other North African countries (Morocco, Algeria) and a mix of religions and nationalities – including Halal butchers and restaurants, an already controversial topic in France that this blog has explored. His piece focuses on the blending and coexistence of cultures, identities, and religions in geographic areas that cannot be pinned down under a single designation. His piece speaks to the Paris he knows, as a French-Tunisian Muslim who has lived in Paris for “most of (his) adult life.” Paris by Mouth’s attempt at condensing his article into a neat list-form appropriate to his audience is understandable, yet misses the mark. Dhab’s experience of Paris as a patchwork of coexisting identities is more accurate of daily life for many of its inhabitants, and it is this diversity that should be celebrated and promoted, not twisted to fit the Western model of safety and value.