Yesterday, French voters went to the polls, and much of the rest of the world watched to see if France would go the way of the US and the UK—that is, toward increasingly isolationist, authoritarian, anti-immigrant governments. In the end, the majority of voters rejected Marine Le Pen’s ultra-right views, electing Emmanuel Macron instead. Macron is emphatically described as a centrist in just about every news profile of him; an investment banker who worked as economy minister for the socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Macron is pledging to fight “the forces of division that undermine France” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39841707). But he has never been elected to anything before, so it remains to be seen how—and if—he will be able to do that. My first reaction to Macron’s victory was relief that France had not elected Le Pen. My second was think of a children’s book that warned against the dangers of thinking that right-wing extremism could be ended by a change in regime.
The children’s book was one that first taught me, as a child myself, about grey areas in politics. Holocaust literature in general remains popular with young readers because it is “real” history that ordinary children were involved in—and the good guys and bad guys, especially in the books I read as a child, are obvious. While YA Holocaust literature was more nuanced about the badness of bad guys, books for the under-twelve set typically allied—well, the allies, with each other. So the French, Dutch, and British were good, the Germans and Austrians were bad. (And Jewish people typically were just that—Jewish, not British or German or anything else.) But Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) presented a more complicated picture—particularly of France. France, in my nine-year-old understanding of the world, was full of good guys who had unfortunately been “overrun” by the evil Nazis in 1940. Anna and her family end up in France—though neither as a first nor a last resort—after escaping from Nazi Germany soon after Hitler’s election. A French newspaper employs Anna’s father, and Anna and her brother Max struggle as refugees to learn the language and fit in—but eventually, “going back to Paris felt more like going home than they would ever have thought possible” (148). Unfortunately, it does not remain that way. While many French people help Anna’s family, not all the French are “good guys”. In fact, their landlady becomes increasingly difficult, eventually lashing out at them by saying, “Hitler knew what he was doing when he got rid of people like you!” (177) and, ominously, “The government should have had more sense than to let you into our country!” (177). The landlady is French, but sympathizes with the Nazis—not after the fall of France, but several years before it. My childhood understanding of history fell apart.
But although my sense of history may have undergone some reorganization, I did not lose the belief that children could play a tangible role in bringing about social and cultural change, or that they could learn how to do this through books. A less historical—though not by any means ahistorical—picture of French anti-racism can be found in an earlier book, written by American Natalie Savage Carlson who lived in Paris for several years. A Brother for the Orphelines (1959) may seem, like A Bear Called Paddington, to be set outside time in the unpolitical world of childhood. But Carlson’s book, published in the midst of the Algerian anti-colonial struggle against France, concerns the rescue of an Algerian orphan by the French orphelines from abandonment. The well-intentioned orphelines bring the Algerian boy to a “world where the ceiling is leaking and the walls are falling in” (33) because the government doesn’t care about repairing the orphanage; and even the kind orphanage managers squabble over where the “dark-skinned” baby originated. The orphelines, on the other hand, focus on community, defending their home and “feeling offended at the way the grown-ups were acting as if the baby were different because he was dark-skinned” (32). Carlson’s text is not problem-free—there are typical orientalist descriptions of the adult Algerians, for one thing—but the orphelines see the Algerian baby as just another child who needs a safe and happy home, and take it upon themselves to secure one for all of them since they can see that the adults and institutions that surround them are either indifferent or prone to casual racism that would divide the orphans into “us” and “them,” deserving (white) children and undeserving (not-white and “foreign”) children.
Kerr and Carlson wrote as adults, and Carlson especially created “ideal” children in her book; but that is not to say that real young people do not understand the consequences of nationalism tied to indifference and racism, whether institutional or individual. In 1979, the community publisher Centerprise published teenager Savitri Hensman’s book of poems, Flood at the Door, which discusses the racist and anti-immigrant attitudes he faced in 1970s England. One of these poems, “World War Two,” has echoes of the themes found in both Carlson’s and Kerr’s books. Hensman writes, “‘We didn’t win to have you here,’/ You say, and flaunt the Union Jack” (8). The separation between “we” and “you” is a false dichotomy, Hensman argues, when he writes in the next line, “But by your side we fought” (8). A false dichotomy with real consequences; the poem that follows is about an Asian being stabbed and kicked to death by racists who tell him “to go back” (9) where he came from. The police do nothing.
While Macron won, Le Pen still received a third of the votes cast. And this means that while Macron argued that “France” won the election, there is another France that does not agree. The France of Le Pen, like the right-wing extremist element in America or Britain, is not powerless to affect the day-to-day lives, or indeed the laws and policies, governing ordinary people in France. That is why activists and children’s authors must continue to fight injustice no matter who is in power—because we didn’t win to have racists here.