A French sojourn

QWERTYMAN - Jose Dalisay - The Philippine Star

My wife Beng and I were in France last week to give a series of lectures at the invitation of the Paris Institute of Political Studies, better known as SciencesPo. They don’t formally observe Holy Week in France (nor, for that matter, do many Filipinos to whom it’s simply come to mean “long weekend”). So we thought that it was the best time to come over and share some of our insights into Philippine literature, art and politics with young French students as well as our countrymen in Paris, for whom I and fellow writer Cris Yabes, who’s based in France, gave a special reading at the Philippine embassy.

For those who’ve never heard of it – which won’t be too surprising given our Pinoy fixation on top American and British universities – SciencesPo (pronounced SEE-ansPO) is France’s leading university in the social sciences. It now has 14,000 students spread out over seven campuses across the country. Only 4,000 of those students are undergraduates; the rest are graduate students, including 350 taking their PhD. Unlike our universities, SciencesPo’s undergrads can finish in only three years, with their last year spent abroad. I was told that there are about 20 Filipino students currently enrolled at SciencesPo, and about half of its students come from overseas. As a public research university, SciencesPo is supported by the government through a private foundation, an arrangement that gives it a high degree of autonomy.

Founded in 1872, the university has served as the training ground for France’s political elite, producing five out of France’s eight presidents: Pompidou, Mitterand, Chirac, Hollande and the incumbent Macron. Marcel Proust studied here for a year, and Christian Dior was a graduate.

With that kind of elite status comes criticism and controversy, and SciencesPo has had its share over the years. Nevertheless, it remains high on the list of desirable universities, especially for students with plans of joining the French civil service, after further studies at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. (At Inalco, another French university, we were surprised to find eight Filipino-French students studying Filipino for their degree under Prof. Elisabeth Luquin, who studied in UP and speaks Filipino like a local.)

Beng and I gave presentations on the Philippines at SciencePo’s main campus in Paris – a sprawling complex comprising ten buildings in some of Paris’ most precious real estate – and I had an additional three sessions in Le Havre, where SciencePo’s campus focuses on Asian studies. Wherever we went, we could see signs of intellectual and political ferment; like their predecessors at the Sorbonne whom we admired for their militancy 60 years ago, SciencesPo students have protested and rallied over many causes, from domestic violence to Gaza.

To be fair, these concerns have occupied much of the rest of France as well. In a country where street protests are a time-honored tradition that have a real bearing on political outcomes, differences of opinion can run deep and long, and controversy stalks nearly every issue, from the wearing of religious headgear to the extension of the retirement age. To “liberté, egalité, fraternité,” we must now add “identité,” the subject of identity so central to political discourse in many countries today, especially those with large and strong immigrant populations like America and France.

“Over the last few years, France has been torn by culture wars – a shift that was less the effect of American concepts imported into French universities, as many on France’s right claim, than of the long-term decline, beginning in the early 1980s, of class politics and alternatives to capitalism. In a post-ideological France, class struggle has been displaced onto the terrain of identity,” noted sociologist Daniel Zamora in an article for Catalyst in 2021. “Despite Macron’s professed disdain for identity politics, his alternative can scarcely be construed as anti-identitarian. Building on what we have in common, Macron argued, meant finding an answer to the question, ‘What does it mean to be French?’”

Identity, at least, was not in question when Cris Yabes and I gave our reading at the Philippine embassy, thanks to the invitation of Ambassador Junever “Jones” Mahilum-West, one of the most amiable, gracious and artistically inclined ambassadors I’ve ever met. (She was very game as well, happy to hoist an IPA beer with my wife Beng after our talks.) To a fairly sizeable group from the Filipino community in Paris, Cris and I read pieces that had to do with our foreign relations, particularly in my case with our diaspora, which my second novel Soledad’s Sister (which has been published in French by Mercure de France) dealt with.

In the conversations that followed, I learned that there are around 26,000 documented Filipinos in France, with perhaps just as many existing below ground, most of them domestic helpers. One of them, Zita Cabais, was a victim of human trafficking more than two decades ago, having been enticed to come to Europe with the promise of a visa and a good job. Instead, she was brought to Hungary, from where she was led on foot through Europe to finally reach France, whereupon her employer confiscated her passport, effectively holding her hostage. But unlike many other DH’s, Zita fought back, sued her employer and succeeded. Since legalized, she now works for organizations devoted to fighting human trafficking. (The path to legalization is reportedly shorter in France, but knowing the French language is a prerequisite.)

One unexpected highlight of our visit was running into a group of Filipino seamen in our hotel in Le Havre, prior to my lecture. Beng and I had just come down for breakfast when we heard the familiar chatter of Filipinos at a nearby table. We came up to them and introduced ourselves, and we had a lively conversation during which they explained that they were still waiting for their ship to dock because of the bad weather. I’d met and chatted with seamen like them before in Hamburg and in Christchurch, among other places; as a writer and as a Filipino, I take it as a pleasant obligation.

Competition, they said, was driving them to accept shorter four-month stints at sea. “We barely break even, and it’s a tough life at sea, but we have no choice, since our families depend on us.” Part of my lecture that day was going to be about our Filipino notion of the hero as martyr, of Christ-like sacrifice for the common good. I suddenly realized that it was Good Friday. We had our smiling selfies taken, and they seemed proud to stand with UP professors, but it was Beng and I who felt honored to be there with them.

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Email me at [email protected] and visit my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

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