After all, it is rather un-French to fear too much of the future and the unknown. But it is very French to say On est bien, là — we are good here. - Reuters file pic

IT has only been a few days since a friend witnessed a young Asian woman being forced out of a train in a bustling European capital for coughing.

Another friend, who is Asian but neither Chinese nor of Chinese descent, was given the deadly stare by everyone for coughing in the cold weather in a bus. His coughs, it appears, managed to put time on its heels.

These and many other similar incidents reported throughout the West give light to the general prejudice living beneath the veneer of the so-called developed world and surmised the ethos of casual racism into two main tenets: that all East and Southeast Asians are Chinese and that they are the only ones that seem to be able to spread Covid-19.

Discrimination against Asians is nothing new in the West, but is figured less prominently compared with the discrimination against blacks or Jews. Asians too rarely march the streets demanding for equal treatment.

Perhaps, it is just how Asians generally fit themselves in their surroundings—abide by the law, keep out of trouble, and mind your own business. Passive-aggressive treatment on account of race are to be tolerated as a fact of life.

But, regardless of the ostensible bleakness of humanity, hope can be found in unexpected places.

In France, an elected member representing the Quartier de la Porte-Saint-Denis atthe outskirts of Paris, Madjid Messaoudene, vociferously raised his voice against stigmatisation of Asians.

A so cialis t at hear t, Messaoudene had made it his life crusade to realise the French spirit of égalité, which is treating everyone the same.

On the right side of political spectrum, Rachida Dati, the Republican mayoral hopeful for Paris, made it a strong point to mingle and shake hands with the Asian community in Paris’s 13th arrondissement — using the opportunity to highlight the stigma faced by Asians amid the coronavirus spread.

While France may have yet to discover the cure for Covid-19, it has in the past discovered the cure for fear.

Napoleon Bonaparte once argued that fear of plague caused it to spread more quickly, and went on to carry infected soldiers and diseased corpses with his own hands to boost the morale of his soldiers in Egypt. “The surest protection,” he said, “was moral courage”.

A few hundreds of years may have passed, and the French themselves are divided in their assessments of the general. But one thing for sure is that they have internalised the much needed “moral courage” to live life in the present.

In France, people live in the être (to be), putting worries and fears aside to enjoy life as it is.

This is not to say that life is completely perfect in France, or that they don’t complain about life. In fact, the French (or rather, Parisians) have adopted râler, or complaining, as a habit.

But, the French have learned to enjoy life regardless of how terrifying life can be.

To put into perspective, France remains at risk if terrorist attacks and placed at Tier 2 (“Heightened Security/Risk of Attack”) on a three-tier scale of its national security alert system.

In 2019, more than 1,100 of its people died because of the flu epidemic. Out of 67 million people, it puts the number of casualties in China into a new perspective. But, despite the epidemic, weekly protests remained unperturbed.

The French take life as it is in the present and not fret too much about the future.

It may perhaps explain why the sale of surgical masks has not skyrocketed in France nor is there an immediate pressure on the government to do more than what is deemed necessary by the World Health Organisation.

And it is exactly this “moral courage” that both Messaoudene and Dati tapped into to bring France and lead Europe to see the error in placing fear in lieu of hope.

After all, it is rather un-French to fear too much of the future and the unknown. But it is very French to say On est bien, là — we are good here.


The writer is a Foreign Service officer based in Paris who writes on international affairs with a particular emphasis on Europe.


The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.