Can Paris be Tamil ?

Nicole Berger

In 2015, Tamil protagonists graced the silver screen of French cinema’s most iconic venue when the film Dheepan, a story of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees struggling to rebuild their lives in the disadvantaged suburbs of Paris, made its début—and won the highest honors—at the Cannes Film Festival. It was a rare moment of visibility for a community that remains in many respects a somewhat unexpected site of the Tamil diaspora.  The global distribution of Tamil diaspora is a well-known phenomenon, as is the diversity of its composition and its historical depth: from colonial-era plantation laborers to a new wave of IT expatriates with many others in between.  In Paris, France, all these elements are present in a substantial Tamil diasporic population which encompasses several distinct historical migratory flows from diverse geographical sites of the Indian Ocean. A particularity of Paris’s position as a site of global Tamil diaspora stems from France’s post-colonial relationship with its former colonies in India, specifically the current Union Territory of Pondicherry.  The history of this colonial encounter lies in the shadow of France’s larger colonial reach in Southeast Asia and Africa, and the British Raj in India. Nevertheless it has yielded an enduring and reciprocal connection between French and Tamil worlds which remains an important, if muted, presence in France’s capital city. However, the largest segment of the Tamil diaspora in Paris is the conflict-driven global migration of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. While France was not a first-choice destination at the beginning of Sri Lanka’s civil war, it nevertheless emerged as a major site for asylum-seekers, and today the Sri Lankan Tamil population in France is estimated at 100,000.  This paper examines Paris as a site not only of asylum and postcolonial migration—that is, as a place that Tamils go to, but as a site of Tamil cultural production, a place that Tamils and Tamilness might also come from, or simply be. To this end I examine how diverse ways of being Tamil and performing Tamilness emerge in Parisian urban space, in conversation with structuring constraints of French nationalist anxieties about the construction and performance of French national unity in contemporary, multicultural France. Migrants are often theorized in terms of assimilation or lack thereof, a model in which individuals are considered as receptacles of an originary culture, which either continues in isolation or fades away when transposed to an unfamiliar context.  This binary leaves little room to examine complex and often contested constructions of identity within both “receiving” and “arriving” populations. Instead, I offer an ethnographic analysis of Paris as a site of Tamil cultural production, through cinema, literary texts, religious ritual, and the everyday production of space in Paris’s Tamil district.  I ask, can Paris be Tamil? And what does it mean to be Tamil in Paris?