In the wake of the July 14 attack, it’s hard to remember that Nice is a relative newcomer to France. The city was still a separate state some hundred and fifty years years ago – unlike any other major French town — becoming French only when Napoleon III negotiated with Italy over who would take over. When the song, Nissa la Bella, was played this past weekend in New York to support the city, you could still hear Italian amid strains of Niçois dialect.
It’s good to remember that Nice is still Italian to its core; many of its buildings constructed by Italians, many of its neighborhoods with men and women born in Italy who call themselves now Niçois.
Anyone discovering the city can see, in fact, a Mediterranean one, the coral and yellow street fronts, the sea lapping along miles of its streets. But it’s Mediterranean most of all because of its people, with some 6 percent coming from Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, as well as Italy.
These Niçois are not the migrants typecast by the obsessive, fearsome headlines. Nor are they the post-colonial generation who left North Africa and West Africa to work in Europe. They are the thousands of inhabitants akin to the some 30 from Maghrebi families who were killed on Bastille night. They are the face of France today.
It’s all the more important to recognize this city as the political polemics over who is responsible for these attacks and who is in control of policing them continues to intensify.
Nice is a stronghold of the far Right, Front National, whose symbolic figure and attack dog, Stéphane Ravier, was quick to denounce the French government for its handling of the attack. Ravier is himself a first generation Frenchman who reneges on his own heritage when making the aggressive case against immigration; his Italian-born mother, bringing the riches of Mediterranean culture into their France.
With debate over terrorism shrill, and the political fight over the upcoming election daunting, it’s encouraging to consider what Nice has survived in past struggles.
Christiane Taubira, former Socialist Minister of Justice, just did, writing about the multi-cultural city that has endured earlier shock waves of terror. http://www.liberation.fr/france/2016/07/24/attentat-de-nice-taubira-sort-de-son-silence_1468178
We may think first of combats around and following the Algerian war, when thousands of Algerians began arriving in Mediterranean cities. But Taubira digs deeper in living memory, to the summer of 1943 and the final paroxysm of deportation of Jews and children . She remembers the activism of Moussa Abadi, born in Syria who, together with his companion Odette Rosenstock, brilliantly built an underground network to save hundreds of Jewish children from death.
So do I. When I walked the streets of Nice, researching the Marcel network, I was alive to the polyglot energy of its neighborhoods, so many voices of the South that echoed with other Mediterranean towns. Here were people involved in the scrappy boisterous experience of international civic life in the Vieux port or Ariane just as strongly as the Promenade des Anglais that had attracted so many English and other adventurers from Chekhov to Bono. I liked to think that it was exactly this chaotic, dangerous, multi-lingual, multi—everything of a city that inspired James Joyce to imagine Finnegan’s Wake as he too ambled the streets, in 1922, “along the swerve of the shore and the bend of the bay.”
As we step back in the summer heat, in Durham, at Duke, as in Nice, and now St. Étienne-du-Rouvray, as elsewhere in France, I think this history can help us to take heart. It reminds us that other Niçois, of other Mediterranean backgrounds, have confronted waves of terrifying sectarian and racist violence before. Facing great loss, they stood their ground, and acted resolutely with cunning. Critical imagination – and humor – helped them prevail together.
This July and August, as many attempt to make sense of the murderous behavior and hateful discourse so as to respond to this challenge usefully, there is something to be gained by taking stock of Nice’s history and all the people – creative, activist – who make up this city.