Parisians Counter Fear and Xenophobia Through ‘Dialogue Circles’
Paris suburbs may have been rocked by riots last year and in 2005. But according to a French group visiting London, the way to counter fear and xenophobia is through ‘dialogue circles’.The four Parisians told how they and their colleagues are developing a series of trust-building dialogues in their city’s suburbs, when they spoke at a Greencoat Forum on 11 March. They were addressing a multi-ethnic audience in the London centre of Initiatives of Change (IofC).
The dialogue circles are the outcome of a ten-year programme of IofC-France, called Initiative Dialogue. The aim is to ‘bridge gaps between different worlds that ignore each other’, particularly between Muslims and non-Muslims, said Michael Smith, a director of the Catholic movement Fondacio, which partners with IofC.
Coming from a privileged Anglo-Belgian background, Smith and his French wife chose to live in Trappes to the south-west of Paris, which is home to 30,000 people of 73 nationalities. Smith said that Trappes’ reputation for street violence had left friends fearful of visiting them. But the dialogue circles there were ‘a space where “real” persons meet. We can hear how close we are in our desires, values, problems.’ The Trappes dialogue circles also embrace Coignières, where 70 per cent of the population are immigrants.
France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe with some six million, about nine per cent of the population, mostly coming from north Africa.
Another dialogue circle to the north of Paris, near where last year’s riots took place, has been developed by Jamila and Béchir Labidi, of Tunisian birth. They aim to ‘build relationships based on confidence between native French and Muslim French’, said Jamila. They were not looking for theological debate but instead focussed on common concerns: difficulties in families, discrimination and the place of Islam in public life.
Jamila, a Director of IofC-France, teaches Arabic to adults and children and has just gained French citizenship. She spoke about the Muslim community’s ‘deep responsibility towards the country that welcomed us’. Her contact with IofC had helped her ‘rediscover France by meeting sincere and humble people gifted with impressive human and intellectual qualities’. The Initiative Dialogue programme had helped her to ‘create true relationships and deep links of trust and friendship’, particularly through difficult times such as 9/11 and the Iraq war.
Listening to each other, she stressed, was not always easy. ‘It puts us to the test and causes us to look inside ourselves. Being frank with ourselves allows us to awaken our consciences and let “the other” naturally find his place in our space and spirit. If we remain superficial we won’t change but remain hard and narrow-minded. I have a deep conviction that, if everyone is prepared to offer some place to the other, that will allow a collective movement [to grow] towards a better world.’
Erwan Floc’h, Director of Initiative Dialogue, said that it had three aims: to bring down walls of incomprehension, prejudice and fear; to fight against discrimination; and to strengthen cohesion in French society. ‘Trust starts when you realize the other is a bit like you,’ he said.
The dialogue circles typically draw together some 20 people every six weeks, he said. ‘We talk very honestly about our every-day life. Our concerns relate to the latest news, education of our children, difficulties at work. We discover that we have the same difficulties, we face the same situations, we enjoy the same kind of events.’ And participants share in each other’s festivals and meals, including Christmas and Ramadan.
Anne-Marie Tate, a veteran of IofC in France, quoted the words of the prominent Catholic figure Jean Vanier who had stressed that ‘the human being’s deepest longing is for a true and real relationship’, where each one is accepted and needed. Floc’h admitted that their work sometimes felt far too slow. But Mme Tate said, ‘the human heart is too delicate an instrument not to be handled with care. And we know that we shall be able to say one day, “We did it!”, when we will all say, “What a real happiness it is to be your friend.”’
Baroness Ros Howells of St Davids, welcoming them to the House of Lords, told them, ‘The only way is what you are doing, building brick by brick’. They also met the broadcaster Ajmal Masroor in north London, who is an imam at the Wightman Road mosque. Michael Smith was interviewed for 15 minutes on the Afro-Caribbean digital radio station Colourful Radio.