|BOOK REVIEW BY JEAN-MARIE VOLET|
Comment la France traite l'asile politique: lettres à nos mères restées au pays
(How does France deal with asylum seekers ? Letters to those mothers left at home)
|Paris: L'Harmattan, 2000|
... and two other novels by African women writers
Common to the 15 letters included in the book, are references to the climate of fear and repression that drove the writers to flee their native countries in fear of their lives. Free speech is often the first casualty of tyranny and dissenting journalists are prime targets for unscrupulous officials, rogue armies and police. Figures mentioned by the Committee to Protect Journalists suggest that "24 Journalists were killed in 2000 because of their work; another 81 were in prison at year's end and a 550-page report documents 605 cases of media repression in 131 countries, including assassination, assault, imprisonment, censorship, and bureaucratic harassment". "On voulait me faire la peau en raison de mes opinions de journaliste" (p.15) [They had in mind to 'bump me off' because of my journalistic opinions] the first contributor says; his words summarise quite well the experience of all the others.
Leaving the country, often illegally, and leaving one's family behind is indeed a painful experience, yet all the contributors agree that the effects of the trauma experienced are grossly minimised by French officials and a cold reception awaits refugees at the border. Later on, getting a visa, a temporary residence permit or a carte de résidence is fraught with difficulties: red tape and obstruction by civil servants "qui se complai[sent] dans les lenteurs " [who enjoy slowing things down] translate into endless visits to unhelpful administrations and hours spent in long queues and waiting rooms. "Etre demandeur d'asile n'est pas une sinécure" (p.37) [Asylum seekers do not have an easy ride] and for most of them, it ends up as a personal tragedy : according to a statistic mentioned in the introduction (p.7), more than 80% of the applications are eventually rejected and asylum seeker expelled.
For the "lucky souls" who, after years of uncertainty, have been granted the right to remain in France, life is far from rosy; they soon realise that life in France, even with the proper documents, remains difficult. "Il ne se passe presque pas de jour sans que je sois victime de quelque chose parce que je suis 'couleur d'ébène' noir charbon"(p.100) " [Not a single day passes without me being harassed in some way because I am Black ] writes one emigre and that exemplifies the overwhelming difficulties faced by many of those exiled from Africa and elsewhere in findinga nice flat or a good job. As one social worker put it to his 'exile' client: "Il faut oublier que vous avez été un intellectuel, un dirigeant, un responsable et encore moins un écrivain ou un poète dans votre pays. Ici, il faudra vous résoudre à faire n'importe quoi"(p.86) [Forget that you were an intellectual, a leader, a person with responsibilities and especially a writer and a poet. Here, you've got to accept any job that comes up].
Comment la France traite l'asile politique deals with the French approach to the issue, but much of what is written would hold true in many countries, including Australia, where there is somewhat of a reluctance to come to the rescue of those most affected by inhumane conditions of life: torture, death threats, starvation, etc... Not enough is known by the general public of the privations and trauma suffered by those seeking refuge and this book provides an interesting insight into their various personal experiences.
The major shortcoming of the book is however the fact that it does not include the experience of women. Do female journalists exiled in France experience the same kind of negative reaction from both officialdom and the French population at large? How do they live out their exile? To what extent do African - and other women refugees tend to consider themselves as "ordinary immigrants" rather than "exiles" (an issue discussed in a different context by Edmonson; see Odile Ferly's article in that issue)? It is certainly a pity that this volume missed the opportunity to provide even a limited answer to those questions and interested readers will have to look elsewhere for a female point of view.
Two recent novels by women may offer an interesting complement in this regard, although they do not deal specifically with female journalists. 53 cm by Bessora (Paris: Le Serpent à Plumes, 1999) is arguably one of the best novels published in the 1990s. It is witty, irreverent and highly critical of French ways to deal with immigration. A young woman sojourning in Paris to further her education gets lost in a maze of administrative and racist bureaucracy. She soon discovers that it is far from easy to get a "ca't d'identité gauloise" (French identity card) and that even renewing a simple "Ca't de séjou' " is no mean feat. This is especially so when you have a small daughter and a father who is Gabonese. African immigration in France is a minefield but Bessora does not indulge in a crude and blunt attack on its shortcomings. Rather she provides a well argued, perspicacious and metaphoric evocation of the issue.
Amba Bongo's Une femme en exil (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2000) offers a less literary, yet still interesting account. A well educated Congolese woman managed to escape from a prison where she had been incarcerated and brutalised for months,following which she seeks political asylum in Britain. Although quick to settle in her new environment, she suffers enormously from being separated from her kinfolk, especially her parents and her small daughter who she had to leave behind in the Congo without the opportunity of saying goodbye. Britain and France have been notorious for their divergences on many issues since time immemorial and one could hardly take Bongo's novel in order to illustrate a French approach to female immigration and exile, yet there is a common trend in the current approach of the two countries.
Arbitrary incarceration and torture are rife in many countries and the route to exile is rarely a matter of choice; rather it is a matter of survival. Comment la France traite l'asile politique? is indeed an interesting question, but above and beyond a collective response, one has to decide what one can do as an individual. Getting better accquainted with the issue by reading the three books mentioned in this review may be a good start.