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Every blog post I’ve tried to write on gender strands for some reason or another before they reach the web. The following text was meant to be a simple and silly account of a quick bike trip around Belleville. However, when I let it rest for a moment in order to start sorting out the huge heap of paper – flyers, magazines, newspapers, brochures… -that was threatening to cover more and more of the surface space in my little office-cum-livingroom-cum-kitchen, I came a cross an old article about a café that I had just passed on my trip. This café reached the national media right after the Mohammad caricature affaire because they put up an exhibition with blasphemous caricatures right in the heart of Belleville. Well, the article in itself wasn’t enough to put me off track. It was rather it’s point of view, or framing, that threatened to put my experiences on my little trip in a new light. I started worrying that my silly little text had to become a bit more complicated.
In one of my French classes in the autumn, my teacher made my research into a little subject of discussion. According to her, a fieldwork in Belleville would be difficult for me, as the local boys would “try to chat me up” (elle va se faire draguer). I’ve been reminded of her words recently, as the season of la drague obviously is well on its way.
The way men and women communicate or not communicate in public spaces in this city is a part of French society I can’t really get my grips on. People exchange glances, or look casually at each other or around themselves, far less in the street here than I’m used to. I think men as well as women feel that that they should keep their eyes to themselves – unless they have certain intentions, that is – but it seems obvious to me that men’s gaze is far freer than women’s.
When I cycled through Belleville the other day, I wasn’t more than giving a young boy a little resigned smile after he – who probably was almost half my age – had leaned out in the street in front of me and called me ma chérie, before he found it opportune to announced to the whole street that one est chaude!. In my hometown Oslo, this - which in my opinion can be categorised as light verbal sexual harassment – has happened to me only a couple of times. At one occasion, when I told the kids to have some respect, they quickly excused themselves. Here, I avoid all further exchanges. I don’t know if that is the best way, but as I said, I don’t understand this interaction. And at occasions when I have answered back, it usually comes to some kind of scene where the man for some reason feels obliged to display a lot of hurt feelings and start an argument.
In another French class we discussed these strange Latin gender relations in public spaces, and una bella Italiana said she appreciated attention in the street. I don’t know if the attention the two of us get is exactly the same, but I didn’t get much support in my class – which for the day consisted of various Latins – for the view that this is limiting women’s freedom.
The kid who called me chaude (“hot”) was probably of North-African origin (either Muslim or Jew, I don’t know – it was right in the Jewish Tunisian part of Belleville). A Danish woman (mid twenties) I discussed this with, said she mostly got attention from men of North-African origin. However, I must say that I’ve experienced approaches by French men of all colours and ages – from old men coming close and almost whispering bonjour (as if I was looking like a prostitute?! - a less “prostitute-like” desscode than mine is hard to find), to such kids – and it happens all over the city. My worst experience took place when I was 17, when two men literally tried to abduct me at Les Halles (they were white French, a point I remember because the police asked specifically about their skin colour).
And it was around here my post stranded some weeks ago. From this point I can wrap up with some more comments on French gender relations in public spaces, - or I can change the framing towards the question of class relations in Belleville, and ask, as they did on posters in a similar quarter in Marseille; à qui appartient la rue? (“to whom belongs the street?”)
I can’t tell how the guy’s sexualising insult should be interpreted. Certainly, it was not a good point of departure for really trying to me draguer. I guess he was probably acting cool in front of his mates. (But why is that a way to act cool, one can ask?) However, the article I found in Le Nouvel Observateur looked at the controversy around public spaces in Belleville in a class perspective.
There is a process of gentrification going on in Belleville and Ménilmontant, where the bourgeois-bohemians are moving into this working-class and cosmopolitan area. And just by Parc de Belleville, a new chic café had decided to make their own little caricature affaire, where they put up religious caricatures on their bright red walls, clearly visible for the passers-byes. (Part of) the local Muslim youth didn’t think that was such a good idea. And then there were discussions (à la français – i.e. loud arguments) and a little destruction, and some national media coverage.
This was certainly a negotiation of space going on, which I, when I read the article, felt was reverberating down to my own recent bike trip. Coincidentally, perhaps, I never experienced any similar incidents on my many trips around Belleville last autumn. Initially, I took all this male expressiveness to be signs of spring, (which seems to affect the locals stronger than elsewhere ), but as one of the opening lines in the article went: “the intellos come there with their bikes, while the roughs charge with their Vespas…” I suddenly felt part of a bigger scheme.
As I’ve decided to get this first text on gender relations out on the web now, I’ll not linger any further…
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