By: Brandon Carter, intern at Niagara Foundation
The Niagara Foundation was honored to welcome Consul General of France, Hon. Graham Paul to speak about the unique relationship between France and the United States for a Chicago and Global Family Event on June 12th. Chicago and Global Family events are roundtable discussions between Niagara Foundation staff, members, and local or global leaders in Chicago.
Accompanied by nine other guests, Paul discussed everything from French secularism to Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. Paul has previously served as deputy head of the French embassy in Berlin from 2007-2010, and has held similar positions in Japan and Cameroon. He has been working in Chicago for four years and will be leaving this summer to go back to Paris to be, as he jokingly put it, “brainwashed” by his compatriots.
What makes the U.S – French relationship so unique according to Paul is the fact that the two countries have nearly been inseparable since the early days of America’s conception. In fact, it was the French who were the first European settlers in the Midwest. They came as traders to the Native Americans, and would aid the United States in its war for independence. If not for the French, the war would have resulted in an American defeat. This is why the first American diplomat was sent to Bordeaux. Paul defines America and France as being two countries born from revolution, but differing on the role of the state. France’s revolution had made it a secular nation in which the lines of religion and state never cross.
As Paul told the audience, it is illegal in France for a business to ask for one’s religion or cultural background. The only demographic question asked is whether one is a foreigner or French citizen. This is something that stands apart from American custom in which a candidate may be asked his or her religion, sexual orientation, and race. Some say it’s a benefit to society while others say it’s a hindrance. Asking for such information can enable affirmative action hiring and it can allow people to focus on demographics at issue with problems such as unemployment. According to Paul, the problem in France is that the government is unable to do any affirmative action or ethnographic initiatives because they can’t inquire about religion, race or country of origin. However, this is has also been a blessing as employers have not been able to hold a bias when selecting candidates. In one situation, Paul mentioned how a business in France used to be biased against candidates with Muslim names until the application process changed and names and backgrounds were removed, making judgment based solely on performance.
Paul went on to describe how the problem of unemployment in France among the immigrant population is somewhat different than that of America. Unlike Chicago, which faces constant criticism on the condition of its public schools, the condition of French public schools is regarded as quite high. Paul also considers the immigrant population to be more assimilated to French society than those of the UK or America. However, he believes the unemployment problem among immigrants is due to the social issues and language barriers that still persist in France. This is an issue many immigrants face in America as well.
Part of the assimilation issue could in fact be due to French secularism. France has banned the wearing of the burqa, under a law that forbids the wearing of masks of any kind. Paul rationalized this law as protection against those who wear masks to commit crimes, and the secondary notion of creating a more social society in which people can get to know each other without being hindered by any type of face covering. This has been a problem for many women from the Arabian Peninsula who come to France for leisure and find themselves arrested and fined for their choice in clothing.
Paul described the differences between French secularism, which is very different from American society in which one swears on the bible in court, rather than signing a sheet of paper, and where the words “In God We Trust” are inscribed on coins. In France, prior to the revolution, God and king where a linked concept. The king’s power was given to him by God, therefore the king could not be removed without heavenly authority also being removed from the state. While this could be said about America’s revolution against the English crown, the American revolution was regarded as a freedom from misrepresentation from a power deemed foreign.
France and the United States are melting pots that attract cultures from around the globe. But despite the differences, Paul was confident in saying the two countries are united in a bolder similarity which was that they held a kind of compass not every country holds. Both nations are members of the G8, and France is the only member with whom America hasn’t fought against. By being world powers, France and the United States have worked together on countless world issues, and this cooperation has grown in the new millennium as both countries have been considered prime targets for terrorism.
Paul also spoke of France’s role In Chicago. The man considered to be the first permanent resident of the city of Chicago was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable who was of French and African descent. DePaul University’s namesake St. Vincent DePaul was from the French village of Pouy. Vincent DePaul was known for his acts of compassion, humility, generosity and service to the community. DePaul University was in fact founded in the 1890’s because the University of Chicago and Northwestern would only accept a handful of Catholics and Jews even though they comprised the majority of Chicago’s new immigrants. DePaul became a University that would welcome students of all backgrounds and not base admittance on religion, and continues to advocate community service. The Lysee Francais is also a secular religious school that can be found in Chicago. It is a local association that teaches its students French. About half of its student body are Americans, which is Paul deems important as French is an important language that is spoken widely in the Caribbean, Africa, and in parts of Canada.
The relationship between the U.S and France is one that is strong yet unapparent to many Americans. France is a testing ground for many American companies who regard French acceptance as the stamp of approval before proceeding to America. Paul stated how younger Americans believe America’s biggest partner to be China, while older generations believe it to be Europe. Paul had also said that we live in a “zero-polar world” in which world affairs are no longer dictated by one country or by many countries. The world is in the midst of a constructive competition as innovation is pushed to new limits and the confines of an old world order are breaking down. Both generations of Americans are therefore right. However, Paul reaffirmed that the US-French relationship stands unique through our history and cooperation as the two countries undoubtably owe their existence and success to one another.