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The French dis-connection: Haitians struggle to make their mark in Paris

In this [Parisian] metropolis filled with majestic monuments, old-world social charm, and modern-day delights, finding the Haitian residents could prove mystifying. That is, until you enter a bal or church – two venues that draw Haitians like the Palais du Louvre attracts art


More often than not, however, these two Haitian groups do not interface for a variety of reasons. But that is slowly changing with the advent of many cultural groups and regularly scheduled events.

“They [the French] don’t like us right now, but we have to show them that we exist,” said Isaac-Joachim Pantaléon, 25, a student dressed in khaki pants and a matching cream corduroy blazer. “We are here to create, to start a movement.”

As a professional soccer player, Pantaléon began participating in dance and business activities involving Haitians a couple years ago, when he met some Haitian friends. Like him, after years of living in the shadows, the estimated 60,000 Haitians in France are rising together and creating a community, many say.

Inside well-known records stores and restaurants, fliers from different promoters advertising konpa “soirées” slide off each other in competition – a big change, residents say, as recently as three years ago, when most of them would be for zouk parties. Associations and churches are springing up. Walking inside the major métro, or subway stations, it is not uncommon to hear chatter in Creole between a couple of passengers hurrying to switch trains.

While many of them say Haitians are not unified enough, especially compared with those in New York and Miami, more businesses and entertainment groups are being formed, media outlets are hitting the airwaves, and the number of churches continues to increase.

With music and food being among the easiest methods to stay rooted to their motherland, a few areas such as Château Rouge, St. Denis-Basilique, and Place de Clichy are becoming centers of Haitian life. In the Ile-de-France metropolis of Paris, Haitians can be found buying the latest konpa albums or aranso, Creole for smoked herring.

“We’ve gotten off to a good start to achieve, together, some very good things,” said Dr. Daniel Talleyrand, a physician who first came to France in 1963 and who is active in many circles. “I’m confident in the possibility for the associations to work together.”

The Parisian-Haitian community has taken awhile to become active partly because, like their counterparts in the United States, they too believed that leaving Haiti would be a temporary move contingent on the end of the Duvalier regime.

While here, however, they have excelled by creating families, buying homes and holding respectable positions, as other French citizens do. But unlike in the United States, where Haitians hover at around 1 million residents, in France, the 60,000 have not moved at the same

speed politically and socially, nor were they at full liberty to do so until recently, long-time residents say.

The community has no political voice as an immigrant group in France because most of its associations are centered around issues involving Haiti instead of the daily issues they face in France.

Still, some are waiting for the day to come when they could move back to Haiti. Jackson Belizaire, owner of Soleil d’Haiti – a sundry and grocery store in Château Rouge that sells Haitian products, and two other small businesses – said he is stuck in Paris.

If he had a choice, he would open up those shops in Haiti and live comfortably, but he is afraid.

“The problem is that we don’t have a stable government at home that could provide security for the Diaspora to return,” said Belizaire, who moved to France 19 years ago and speaks Creole with a French Antilles accent. “There’s a lot Haitians in foreign countries with a lot of

skills. Those are the people who need to go back in the country to help it. All we need is the stability.”

No Little Haiti

Besides many Haitians’ own tepid approach into the society, France’s preference of assimilation over diversity has contributed to the delay in Haitians asserting their identity. As French officials changed some of its laws recently to benefit the large Arab population, Haitians are taking advantage of the relaxed rules to form commerce associations. Prior to the 1980s, French immigrants had no political representation and were not allowed to create advisory councils because they were deemed a threat to the State.

Within the Château Rouge commercial zone in Paris’ 18th district, for example, more than 10 Haitian businesses exist – most of them beauty salons and barbershops. Record stores and restaurants are popular among Haitians throughout other areas of Paris, a big step compared with what was available 20 years ago, long-time residents say.

About 18 associations have formally joined the newly founded Platforme des Associations Franco-Haitiens based in Paris. More than 30 participate in its monthly meetings.

Haitian journalists are working on the debut issue of Haiti Tribune, a newspaper to address issues affecting Haitians.

Entrepreneurs are starting small businesses. For instance, Andre Lenes owns AD Music International, which organizes balls, sells records and DVDs that have not been available to Haitians in France until recently. But Haitians have a long way to go as a community and some still yearn for one place they could point to as dominated by Haitians.

They cite tensions between Haitians of different backgrounds; mixed feelings about Antilleans and Africans; and France’s xenophobia.

“It’s not like Miami, where there’s a ‘Little Haiti,’ ” said Jimmy, one of thousands attending at a konpa concert. Having just returned from a Miami festival the weekend before, Jimmy said when he compared Haitians’ presence there with that in Paris, “It’s not working out for us.”

Out of France’s 60 million inhabitants, 3.5 million are estimated to be immigrants, but that number is debatable because France does not ask its citizens about ethnic, country or religious origin because it wants everyone to adapt to French ways, experts say.

In “Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t be Wrong: What makes the French so French,” authors Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow explain that immigrants are absorbed into French society once they are granted French citizenship because allowing ethnic or immigrant identities to

proliferate is detrimental.

For example, the authors write, keeping track of people by religious and ethnic identity allowed Nazis to find Jews living in France and to easily to send them to concentration camps during World War II.

“Assimilation means being integrated into the whole politically, culturally, socially, linguistically and economically,” Barlow and Nadeau write. “No one in France associates it with a loss of cultural heritage, ethnic identity, or mother tongue.”

“The French do not admit groups, they admit individuals,” said Ilofils Alemy, a Paris resident for 16 years. “The République [Française] integrates people, not a community.”

Alemy’s brother Ulris, who visits France and the United States often but lives in Haiti, said Haitians here simply “do not group enough, like they do in North America.”

Some say the very idea of a community must be defined. Then, persuading residents to participate in it would be another task because some live well in mainstream French society.

For those residents who have adjusted well as French citizens, the idea that the French are racists borders on absurdity because they have benefited from opportunities. After all, it was the government of France that gave them scholarships to leave Haiti and attend its

universities. They’ve made friends of all races and backgrounds while at school and after graduating, moved to mixed neighborhoods, and now their children play with white, Asian and other races.

“We are integrated very well,” said Maget Delva, a journalist among those starting Haiti Tribune whose parents sent him to Paris to study in the 1980s. In his customary dress pants and blazer, and flawless French accent, other Haitians often mistake him for a Martinique or

Guadeloupe native.

“My wife is from Martinique,” Delva said. “If you come to a party at my house, I’m sorry, but most of the people you meet there will not be Haitian.”

Along with the rest of the French population, the pressing issue is finding employment. France’s unemployment rate was 9.1 percent as of 2002, according to the CIA World Fact Book.

Most job-seeking students must be highly qualified and hold at least two degrees.

Looking at the crowd of blacks marching to demand reparations for Haiti and other former colonies at Paris’ Nation plaza three weeks ago, Ilofils Alemy said most of the demonstrators were college educated. But that has its downside.

“A country full of intellectuals and no jobs – that’s a problem,” he said.

The have-nots

Recent Haitian migrants have not been as fortunate. Take the case of the man living in Paris without any immigration papers, for example. Sitting inside Restaurant Fée de l’Amour-Anacaona in Aubervilliers, a neighborhood in the north of Paris, he sipped his orange soda slowly, turning it around and around on the tabletop. With the golden sounds of Tropicana coming from the eatery’s radio, he told his story.

“If you don’t have papers, it’s like you’re living in a prison,” said the man, who declined to provide his name for fear of being deported. “If you don’t have papers, you can’t work, you can’t rent a room, you’re not free.”

A father who left his wife and children in Haiti, his brother requested a visa for him to enter France seven years ago. After a few months, the relationship soured and he was kicked out of the house. He ended up searching for work during the day and sleeping in the subways, phone

booths or parks. Sometimes, Haitian friends allow him to stay at their apartments for a few nights. To earn a few euros, odd jobs such as painting ships, plumbing and carpentry are available without a diploma.

“The first six months I came here, I cried every day,” the illegal resident said. “If you don’t have papers, you don’t exist.” Rules governing immigration are both beneficial and stringent. If an immigrant overstays a tourist visa, local law enforcement agents will order that person to depart or to apply immediately for a change of status.

Most Haitians opt for the refugee status, but it sometimes has drawbacks, chief of which is unscrupulous representatives who overcharge to fill out the simple forms.

It sometimes falls on the Haitian church to fill the void of counselor or caretaker when compatriots fall into desperate situations. Rachel Henry, a French resident for 15 years, said her 200-member church, Eglise de Dieu de la Prophecie, helps Haitian families who are unable to pay rent, find a job or buy food.

“When people come to church, they feel good,” said Henry, a manicurist. “Even if you have problems at home, when you come to church, it’s not the same thing.” She said the church organizes trips to neighboring countries, choirs, retreats and conventions.

Observers estimate 200 to 300 Haitian Protestant churches, many of them not registered with the proper authorities.

“They don’t even have awnings,” said Guerline Dormeus, who attends Eliese Bethel at Fontenay. “You don’t know if they’re Baptist, Pentecostal, or just a Church of God.”

The churches are not as welcoming to all, especially to people considered a danger to the flock. Marie-Fona Jean-Louis found that out the hard way when she and other dance troupe members went to Protestant churches to distribute fliers for a cultural show. She said the pastor and members reacted harshly, because Vodou was featured in the folkloric dance troupe’s program. “They didn’t go as far as to stone us,” Jean-Louis, a teacher, said. “But they chased us out.”

Such anecdotes of tension between Protestant churches and the entertainment sector abound. Getting the two different groups to accept each other or even dialogue poses a challenge for those who want to lead them. Protestant Christians say they often have to sneak around to attend cultural activities deemed too worldly by their pastors, but they cannot help it.

“It’s really not our place, [as Christians],” said Emmanuel Dora, 24, a Baptist who left Haiti four years ago. “But I am a little tempted.”


In Series Archive section of Edition 120: 17 June 2004

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