Finding root in its colonial history, Paris is home to large and varied immigrant communities. While Morrocan Cous Cous and cream laden north Indian food has become a daily part of the everyday French life, it is not popular knowledge to many that the street known as Little Jaffna in the tenth arrondissement of Paris, is home to a thriving Tamil community. As is the case with most diasporic communities, they hold on to their culture tighter than those back in the motherland. From celebrating Chariot festivals to making the best Dosa in Paris, they continue to stay true to their heritage.
The French – Tamil connection is one that has a long and winding history. The majority of Tamils who migrated to France were from Sri Lanka and Pondicherry. France, with its strong colonial presence, has had a strong hold in India for a long time. This can be traced back to 1674, when French East India Company set up its prime trading centre in Pondicherry and continued to acquire Mahe, Yanam, Karaikal and Chandernagar to be part of their settlement. During this time, the middle class Tamil citizens who became part of the French government of service, slowly started to migrate to France.
Even after India gaining its freedom, France continued to hold onto its enclaves in the nation. But in 1954, France agreed to sign a treaty, provided a few clauses could be added to it. The most important of which was to give the option for those of the French enclaves to have the option to choose between French or Indian citizenship. Hoping that there will be better opportunities and living conditions, a large number of Pondicherrians at this point chose French nationality and started migrating to France, especially to Paris. From those that travelled for educational purposes to those who held government or military jobs, they found places for themselves in their new country. Even to this day, the people whose parents opted for French nationality have an easier chance to migrate to France.
The next influx of Tamils to France had a story that was much more painful than that of Pondicherrians. A large number of Sri Lankans migrated to France as refugees of the Civil War. They were granted asylum by France during the period of unrest through the 1980s and 1990s. A large number of this migrant community found a place for themselves in Paris.
Due to the long history of ties between Pondicherry and France, many of the Pondicherrian immigrants was fluent in French and had an easier time finding jobs fit for their qualifications and aspirations. But for the Sri Lankan Tamils who fled their country, language became the factor that held them back. Even those with good qualifications could not get suitable jobs without being fluent in French. While some availed the free three month course offered by the government, it was in vain. Many of the Pondicherrians who had started shops and restaurants in Paris, ensured that their children found white collar jobs and sold their establishments to Sri Lankan Tamils who were struggling to find jobs, rather than passing it on to their children.
An area in the tenth arrondissement between metros Gare de Nord and La Chapelle, called Little Jaffna is often inaccurately called Little Bombay. While there are many people from South Asia who call Paris their home, Tamils are one of the largest communities, majority of whom find their home in Little Jaffna. With the entry of the Sri Lankan Tamils, the diasporic group that was dispersed widely across France started to form tighter networks. This soon led to the inception of more Tamil owned businesses and ventures in Little Jaffna.
The shop fronts of Little Jaffna today sport names in English and Tamil, in addition to French. If you are looking for anything from aromatic spices, to embellished Sarees or just want to visit a restaurant that offer traditional South Indian or Sri Lankan cuisine, this is the place to be. Everything from traditional Idly and Chutney to French influenced dishes like Dosa with Steak Haché are available here. Even the South Asian Restaurant chain Saravana Bhavan is a part of Little Jaffna.
During Diwali, or Ganesh Chathurthi, festivals are celebrated with fervour. The Chariot Festival organised in association with Ganesh Chathurthi, often draws thousands of Parisians to Little Jaffna. Organised by the Sri Manicka Vinayakar temple, two Chariots are decked up in garlands of flowers, leaves and fruits. People dressed in their traditional attire sing and dance to drum beats, as they form a procession with the Chariots. As they break coconuts on the streets of Paris as offerings to Lord Ganesha, the French Tamils who try to hold steadfast to their culture, truly claim their identity and all the influences that have made them who they are.
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