A few days before the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Ophelia Smith was in Paris working on research for a Master’s degree in British Civilization. A graduate student from Lille, she’s now pursuing another Master’s degree in U.S. civilization. Before coming to the U.S. she taught French in Qatar at the Qatar International School. The day of the attack she was flying to Atlanta to study abroad at GCSU. This wasn’t the first time she’s been impacted by a terror attack. She was nearby when two other attacks happened: one in London and another in Paris. Now in Milledgeville Smith talked with me about terrorism, free speech and France’s immigration problem.
Hunnings: Where were you when the shootings happened?
Smith: Actually I was on the plane to come here.
Hunnings: What was that like, flying when you heard what happened?
Smith: I knew this was something pretty big, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I was busy getting ready to settle here. It took me a few days to realize the extent of what had happened. When I called my family and everything I realized how bad it was.
Hunnings: Where does your family live?
Smith: We live in Lille, which is in the north of France. It’s about an hour from Paris by train.
Hunnings: You’re not that far.
Smith: In fact just a few days before I flew to Atlanta I was in Paris doing my research for my Master’s.
Hunnings: That’s pretty surreal.
Smith: I’ve had quite a few terrorist attacks wherever I was. I was close to London when that one happened in the tube. I was also in another one in Paris.
Hunnings: Can you tell me more about those?
Smith: I was never very comfortable being in the tube in London. I don’t know why, I just always thought that this would be like a place to attack. I don’t know why. I just always thought that it could be a place where something could happen and then that happened. I thought that was weird.
Hunnings: Can you describe the tube more?
Smith: The tube is an underground train that goes around London.
Hunnings: What was the other Paris attack like that happened before that?
Smith: It was in a public place, kind of like a meeting place for people. It was really bad as well. We had to have like a governmental initiative. It really changed everything. They removed all the bins from all the public places. So if you go to Europe now, if you go to an airport or anywhere, there are no trashcans. Because if you had a bomb that’s where you could put it. So there was a lot of paranoia after this.
Hunnings: After this first attack in Paris?
Smith: After the attacks in Paris and in London yeah. I don’t really know what the situation is like now, but I know their reaction is really strong in France. On Facebook everybody changed their picture. Freedom of speech for us is really really really important for us.
Hunnings: Did you change your profile picture?
Smith: Yeah I did. You know I’m a writer. I write as part of my research. It’s not like it’s a strong position against things, but yeah. This is part of the values of the Republic of France, to be able to express yourself. You know if you cannot makes jokes about anything then its very sad. If you can’t make jokes or you can’t be ironic then you won’t be able to make jokes about anything. On the other hand I can understand how people were offended by this, but then again they could have just ignored the newspaper. The thing is with Charlie Hebdo though is they would do it with the Pope, with Catholics with any religion.
Hunnings: What do you feel about going back to Paris now?
Smith: Oh I mean it’s ok, I’m not worried. I lived in the Middle East for four years. I’m very sympathetic to the Arabic culture. I know that most people are not like this. This is just extremists and unfortunately there’s really bad extremists everywhere. There’s really bad extremist Catholics as well. There’s really bad extremists everywhere.
Hunnings: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Smith: There’s also a huge issue of immigration in France. It’s a terrible issue. In England I think foreigners are a lot more integrated. Their society is very multi cultural. You don’t really feel all that bad if you’re a foreigner. I think in France it’s much harder for the immigrants.
Hunnings: Why do you think that is?
Smith: They get a lot of racism. Simple things. It’s hard to get a flat in France, because in places like Paris or even in Lille where I’m from is people won’t rent out to certain types of people. Just openly racist. And you see quite a lot of racism in certain jobs. It’s quite bad in France. So access to better places to live and certain jobs. There’s a lot of movies you can watch about this. There’s La Haine. The Hatred. This is about people who live in the very rough area of Paris. There’s some areas in Paris that are really unsafe. The police they don’t even go there anymore, because they just get lynched.
Hunnings: How did it get to this point do you think?
Smith: The first wave of immigration that we had straight after the war I guess maybe in the 1950s, the first immigrants were like extremely well integrated I would say. And then I don’t know somehow the generations after this, maybe because of racism or maybe because of other problems in society, they just didn’t integrate that well.
Hunnings: What do you think can be done to stop racism, and help immigrants integrate?
Smith: I guess it could be improved with similar Civil Rights laws as in the U.S., perhaps if we had quotas for universities, jobs, etc. As far as I am aware, we do not have any of the ‘ positive discrimination’ laws like equal opportunities forms for job applications, etc.