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21.6.14

The Armenian Identity in France in the Grip of Memorialization

Tigran Yegavian

Four generations have succeeded the first wave of refugee survivors of the Genocide who ended up settling along the Paris-Lyon-Marseille axis in the 1920s. Formerly at the forefront of political activism in the Diaspora, the Armenian structures of France are now plagued by a general sclerosis, whose effects became apparent in the mid-1990s.

Continuous assimilation
Published in 1986, Pastor René Léonian’s study Are the Armenians of France Assimilated? indirectly questioned how lasting an identity could be when challenged by the integrating framework of the French Republic. Two years later, the outbreak of the Karabakh conflict and Armenia’s independence briefly altered a set identity pattern by causing a momentary resurgence of the dramatic sequence of armed struggle of the late 1970s. But although the word Armenian has eventually entered the French national story – notably through Missak Manouchian’s accomplishments(1) or the work of singer Charles Aznavour –  the naturally-assimilating French society has logically produced mostly “Frenchmen of Armenian stock” as opposed to the tiny defiant group defining themselves as “Armenians of France.”

Armenians: how many subdivisions?
Whether you claim to be part of a 350,000 or 500,000 member strong community, figures are unverifiable because of a widely-disseminated population. Like other communities of the Western Diaspora, the immutable commemorative gatherings of April 24th which are held in towns with clusters of Armenian population offer a much too limited view of its demographic dynamism. Another illusion is that there is any sense of cohesion between the various segments of the community. In reality, it is very divided, due to the social and cultural splintering of a heterogeneous population. Since the 1920s, several strata of immigration have aggregated: the generation of survivors of the 1915 Genocide followed, at the end of the 1960s, by Armenians from the Middle East (Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey). The latter, who carried a strong Armenian cultural baggage, engaged in the various community organizations, particularly at an educational level, bringing a new dynamics to the waning practice of the Armenian language, weakened by its loss of speakers. The last wave, from the former Soviet Republic of Armenia, is still on-going. It started in the mid-1990s, the outcome of economic emigration, and is characterized by little involvement in community life and by inspiring distrust or even scorn in most fellowmen from Armenian-Ottoman origins. 

Political crisis
A year now from centenary commemorations of the Genocide, which have been entrusted to the staff of the Coordination Council of the Armenian organizations of France (CCAF), the crisis is obvious. Founded in 2001, that representative body bringing together the whole rainbow of Armenian associations still finds it hard to unite around a common project reaching beyond the sole memorial function. A telling failure was the floundering of the French-Armenian Council, an ambitious project relying on the legitimacy of universal suffrage which, for the first time, made future leaders of the community accountable to their constituents and their results judged by the ballot box. Although the idea had garnered support from most of the community leaders, it quickly fizzled out in the midst of general indifference – as if the elusive “Armenian constituency” could only express their interest in a common cause on very rare occasions – such as, at best, to shout their indignation in the face of genocide denial.
Another aspect of political deficiency is a form of mimesis. French-Armenians have always felt a complex mix of admiration and envy regarding the cultural, economic, intellectual and political dynamism of the Jewish community of France. Very few public figures of Armenian descent reach such clout and visibility in the French media. This is why the CCAF leaders decided to mimic their counterpart, the Conseil Représentatif des Juifs de France (CRIF), going as far as to copy their famous annual high-profile Paris dinner. Although the “solidarity between survivors,” as goes the famous phrase coined by controversial philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, appealed to Armenians, the Judeo-Armenian convergence has hardly gone beyond a purely emotional level.

The perverse effects of the “duty to remember:” the 2015 syndrome
Impatiently awaited by some, feared by others, the centenary commemorations of the Genocide as seen from France remarkably illustrate the prominent place taken by the devoir de mémoire (duty to remember) compared with other features of Armenian-ness, making the Genocide the most powerful de facto identity marker. For many French people of Armenian descent, this centenary will be a last send-off, the Armenian identity being often perceived as an inherited psychological burden. It will also be an opportunity for flights of imagination. It was thus suggested to have all the bells of the churches of France ring together on April 24th 2015 at 7.15pm . In the same spirit, an organization called “Courir pour la mémoire – stop au négationnisme” (Run for Memory – Stop Revisionism) intends to climb the Everest “to deliver a message of peace and remembrance”… Could too much remembering kill the memory? Many French towns counting a few Armenian residents have installed their own khachkar (funeral headstone with the Armenian cross) dedicated to the memory of the victims of an unspeakable crime. Memorial centres were inaugurated in Valence, Décines, and one will soon open in Paris. And the former prestigious Mekhitarist lyceum in Sèvres, outside Paris, now only the shadow of its former self, intends to open its own Genocide museum.
For lack of a coherent vision of the future of Armenian identity in France, the leaders of the main French-Armenian organizations are staking everything on the strong media coverage of the 40-year struggle for recognition of the Genocide. Although some breakthroughs were achieved in the academic world and the media, one cannot ignore the current stalemate and perverse effects due to the mostly defensive posture of activists faced with mounting attacks from Turkish-Azeri nationalist organizations operating in France. Besides, it is to be feared that too much focusing on the memorial effort will exacerbate dissenting voices of people who think that the Armenian cause also means to invest more energy in the development and security of Armenia and Karabakh, in fighting the oligarchic excesses of the Erevan government, as well as in educating new elites of the Diaspora.  

Spiritual crisis
Another symptom of the current cultural dereliction is the lack of investment in grey matter. The conditions that led to the closure of the illustrious daily newspaper Harach(2), in 2009, have been experienced as a third-class burial of a whole school of thought born of the Diaspora and which bloomed into great names of the Armenian literature of exile such as Shahan Shahnour, Nigoghos Sarafian, Zareh Vorpuni or Vasgen Shushanian. A great witness of that golden age of Armenian literature in France, the Paris-based Diaspora writer Krikor Beledian, is now read more in Armenia than in his own adopted country.
True, the Armenian press in France has always been remarkably lively and never stopped making its voice heard by matching its standards to those of the rich media landscape of France. However, none of today’s press media seems to be able to face up to the challenge that an intellectual such as Shavarsh Missakian so brilliantly met in his days – to look everywhere for material that can benefit his people. Whether they are activist publications or critical Armenophile reviews, all of them validate the thesis of an intellectual weakness/ as well as of serious deficiencies in the workings of identity transmission. This does not mean to say that Armenians of France have become stupid in their 90 years of existence, but that the lack of transmission and under-investment in educational structures have generated a lasting fracture between two spaces: on the one hand a psychological ghetto where speaking Armenian is flaunted as some sort of eternal relic, or even fetish, and on the other, sharp minds cut off from the essential legacy of their elders, incapable of putting their mark on any tradition other than French-centred.
We are thus brought back to the central issue of the essential identity factor: language. But which language are we talking about? About a Westernized, standardized Armenian expurgated from the flavours of human experience, or an outgoing new language unafraid of testifying to the vibrant cultural wealth of a millennia-old nation in uprooted circumstances? One thing is sure: this troubled relation to the fundamentals of Armenian thought, which can never be reduced to one traumatic memory of the Genocide, keeps perpetuating frozen-in-time folklore, stereotypes and icons (cooking, traditional dances, Ararat and Aznavour), while some reinvigorating works of our literary heritage (Oshagan, Indra…) are collecting dust on the bookshelves of Armenian cultural centres for want of translators and readers.

For a re-examination of transmission mechanisms
This bitter state of things is compounded by the startling indifference of the 18 to 25-year-old age group to the very complete curriculum offered by the Department of Armenian studies at the prestigious Oriental languages school INALCO – the sole university in Europe and maybe in the entire Diaspora to offer such a range of courses towards professional specialization. And what to say of the feeble response to the innovative project of educational modules “Digital Armenian Campus” of the association Sources d’Arménie? For their part, a few book publishers (such as Parenthèses, Sigest, Éditions Thadée, le Cercle des écrits caucasiens), who provide commendable non-profit support to Armenian literature, are a comforting antithesis to the grotesque TOROS Prize set up in Marseille to honour “star writers” in a bling and glitzy ceremony.
Clearly, the true stake of developing Armenian identity lies in part on teaching a new elite who can simultaneously address the Armenian and French audiences, a perfectly bilingual elite who is integrated in both cultural spheres so as to decipher the complexity of our reality and make stimulating sense of our diasporic experience. Besides, a policy of aid to literary and cinematographic creative works could give birth to a new movement within the Diaspora dealing with essential themes (sexuality, intercommunity mixing, figuration of Turks yesterday and today, identity fragmentation, etc.) These new vistas would enable us to widen the borders of an Armenian mindscape traditionally confined within local limits with a poor representation of contemporary Armenia – a little known country and source of many frustrations even though Yerevan is only a 4-hour flight away from Europe. Without a grasp on his past or present history, the Armenian of France lives in a permanent scene of shambles. Both a blessing and a burden, it is a curious, specific paradox. Suffering from a lack of vision and collective project creating perspectives, he is not aware of the perverse and stifling effects of the “all-commemorative” excess. Therefore, his rebirth can only happen by way of creativity and a complete reclaiming of his legacy through the mechanisms of transmission and communication – the first step towards building a viable alternative to both assimilation and communalism.

[1] Armenian partisan in the French Resistance executed by the Nazis on 21st February 1944.
[2] First Armenian-language daily newspaper in Europe, founded in Paris in 1925.

"Repair" (repair.net), June 10, 2014

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