The French Ministry of Immigration in 2009 opened a national discussion on what it meant to be French. The previous year, an estimated 11.8 million immigrants lived within the country’s borders, the bulk of them (around 40 percent) settling in or around Paris. In 2005, two immigrant boys were electrocuted while they hid from police in a power substation. Paris rioted, both about the deaths and the larger issue of how immigrants don’t experience liberte, egalite or fraternite once they arrive in France.
In a country with tough anti-immigration laws, critics believed the 2009 identity debates were more about exclusion than integration. After all, anti-Muslim tirades spilled onto the immigration ministry’s web site as soon as it was opened up to commenters.
Oddly enough, in that same year Marie Ndiaye won the Prix Goncourt for her novel Three Strong Women. Ndiaye, whose mother is French and father is Senegalese, became both the most widely-read author in the country and the most controversial, largely because she called President Nicolas Sarkozy’s anti-immigration policies “monstrous.” In response, a member of the French parliament wrote an open letter that said Goncourt winners should respect national cohesion or remain silent. Fortunately for readers trying to understand the realities of multiracial France, her book has been translated into English, making that silence impossible.
Three Strong Women involves three interconnected — but uneven — tales about women straddling the divide between Africa and Europe. The first is about Norah,