Twenty Action Reconciliation Service for Peace volunteers are currently working in French cities of various sizes. They perform memorial and educational work, and they work for documentation centres and the anti-racist movement, as well as with refugees. They also perform social work with older people, people with disabilities or mental health needs, women in emergency situations, and homeless people.
Everyday experiences often teach volunteers that life in France differs in many ways from life in Germany, despite the geographical proximity and comparable socio-economic situations of the two countries. Life with Germany’s “foreign friend” is exciting, and despite the appearance of familiarity, the “foreign friend” needs first to be discovered and understood. When Germans spend a longer period of time in France, they discover numerous differences; understanding them requires a detailed knowledge of history. In France, there is public awareness of collective traumas such as the First and Second World Wars and the murder of 90,000 French Jews in National Socialist extermination camps. In addition to the growing tendency to confront the perpretrators of the Vichy regime, attention is paid to how German society engages with its own memories of National Socialism. This involves closely observing the way the “new Germany” positions itself vis-à-vis its European neighbours.
In 2011, ARSP celebrated the 50th anniversary of its activities in France. The first groups of volunteers arrived in 1961, engaging in so-called construction projects in order to mark places that were especially affected by the German occupation of France. Volunteer groups built a synagogue in Villeurbanne near Lyon; shortly thereafter, other groups helped build the Church of Reconciliation at Taizé. Since then, hundreds of young women and men have travelled to France as ARSP volunteers. They continue to be fascinated by the way the country differs from Germany. In the words of Leonie Jegen, an ARSP volunteer who worked in a refugee project in St. Etienne until August of 2010:
“To me, Saint Etienne is a city of opposites. It‘s a former French industrial city where coal was mined and armaments and bicycles were produced. Today, these industries have closed down. Visually, the city is characterised by its narrow grey allies with the stooped old brownish-gray houses winding across the hills. The alleys lead onto large squares with impressive buildings, some of them prestigious old buildings formerly inhabited by the owners of factories and mines, some of them new buildings that may be up to 16 storeys high. The city doesn’t seem very inviting; it seems bleak and empty. Only the shopping streets and a small number of bars and cinemas fill it with life. This contrasts with the extraordinary friendliness of the residents. A colourful bunch of people. They’re approachable, affectionate and down to earth.“
France is part of ARSP’s international programme for volunteers from Germany.