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Racial Discrimination: The Record of France, Human Rights Documentation Center (September 2001)


Racist and xenophobic ideas are deeply embedded in Europe. France is no exception where an alarmingly strident xenophobia exists among a substantial portion of the population manifest in the attitudes towards immigrants, minorities and foreigners. The trend has been to see immigrants as racial minorities and racial minorities as immigrants - - regardless of these individuals' country of origin or their citizenship - Accordingly, issues facing "immigrants" often relate to the problems of racial and ethnic minorities in France as well.

The connection between race, nationality and socio-economics is stark. The immigrants are blamed by a majority of French citizens for increases in unemployment, crime and decreasing educational standards. They are seen by nearly three-quarters of the population as more likely to commit crimes than the average French person is. Nearly 40% of the population supports forcible repatriation of unemployed immigrants, and 22% supports forcible repatriation of all immigrants.

In conformity with the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, France has continued to develop laws and policies aimed at eliminating racial discrimination. The Constitution of France and the newly enacted Penal Code of 1994, characterized as 'a veritable battery of legislation against any racially discriminatory act or practice', deal specifically with criminalizing discrimination. "Overt manifestations of racism and xenophobia' are punishable under the Penal Code, as is propaganda promoting racial discrimination. Individuals who "incite to hatred or violence against a person or group of persons' on account of their ethnic, religious or racial backgrounds are also subject to penal sanctions. Public defamation or insult based on racial or religious background is also an offence.

Also, France's Constitution and Penal Code prohibit the collection of data that distinguishes origin, race or religion. Although the motivation behind the prohibition is laudable it is questionable whether the effect of the prohibition advances or retards efforts to combat racial discrimination. It is seen as inhibiting the tracking of racism and anti-Semitism and also makes monitoring the progress of anti-discrimination programs, legislation and initiatives difficult. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has expressed concern that France's penal legislation may not adequately address 'actions which are discriminatory in effect" and recommended that France take steps to ensure that these types of actions are prohibited.

Racial discrimination in France is unacceptably linked to a governmental denial of the existence of certain racial categories altogether. Article 2 of the French Constitution eliminates even the idea of particular minorities. France's state party report to the Human Rights Committee, states that Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is not applicable to France since it is a country in which there are no ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities. The Committee however disagrees. The mere fact that equal rights are granted to all individuals and that all individuals are equal before the law does not preclude the existence of minorities in a country, and their entitlement to the enjoyment of their culture, the practice of their religion or the use of their language in community with other members of their group. Similar to the Human Rights Committee, the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance has also censured France on this issue.

The State Party report submitted to the CERD in 1998 shows a steep decline in the rate of racist and anti-Semitic violence in the 1990s. Contrary to these official statistics provided by the government, in 1996, the Special Rapporteur explained that his specific country mission to France "was prompted by the multiplication, since 1990, of racist and xenophobic incidents targeting immigrants and of anti-Semitic acts, which the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights had noted in its reports for 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994." Since then, the National Advisory Commission on Human Rights reported an increase in acts of racist and anti-Semitic violence between 1998 and 1999. The Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF), a British anti- discrimination magazine, reported 4 deaths in 1998 alone, all linked to racism. The deaths included two youths Gustave Kokou (black) and David Dumont (white) shot by a youth involved with the neo- nazi movement, an Albanian worker killed by French customs officers after being discovered without identity papers, and Habib Muhammed, a seventeen-year-old shot by Toulouse police.

The Human Rights Committee has expressed concern at the number and serious nature of the allegations it has received of ill-treatment by law enforcement officials of detainees and other persons who come into conflictual contact with them, including unnecessary use of firearms resulting in a number of deaths. The risk of such ill treatment is much greater in the case of foreigners and immigrants, many young men reporting that they were continually being stopped for identity checks, sometimes "up to IO times a day.' In most cases there is little, if any, investigation of complaints of such ill treatment by the police, resulting in virtual iinpunity. No independent mechanism exists to receive individual complaints from detainees. The Human Rights Committee in its concluding observations on France's state periodic report under the ICCPR issued a danining statement on-police abuses--especially with regard to foreigners and immigrants--and the failure of the French system to provide adequate avenues for complaints.

There is a wave of xenophobia sweeping over France that is being exploited for political gains. Some French politicians have indirectly supported racist policies and encouraged this xenophobia through their campaigns, slogans and speeches. Newspapers have documented how the atmosphere of Toulon had changed after the National Front victory in the municipal elections. Catherine Megret, a National Front politician who was elected mayor of Vitrolles in 1997, had been quoted as calling immigrants "colonials", and stating that '[t]here are simply differences in the genes.' Although the Mayor received a three-month suspended sentence and fine it didn't prevent her from adopting the racist "baby-hand out' policy in 2000. The court barred from her from political office for two years.

The influence of racism in parts of the political scene is further demonstrated in the attitudes of the French population. The 2000 Eurobarometer survey found that voting for the Front Nationale or the Mouvement pour la France 'has people disagreeing with the statement that minorities enrich society." Regarding tolerance towards minority groups, 19% of France's respondents were classified as "intolerant", 26 % were classified as 'ambivalent", with 31 % classified as "passively tolerant" and 25% as "actively tolerant." Additionally, 'Umjany French people still categorise those not of their colour or racial stock as 'immigrants', even though the African or Arab may have been bom or raised in France." Only 31 % of the French respondents support laws outlawing discrimination against minorities.

In an attempt to counter the National Front's influence the government

has taken certain measures and tried to crackdown on illegal immigration. However the Bills proposed could disproportionately affect visitors from outside non-EU countries or the United States, e.g., those from countries in Africa and Asia, including those in possession of valid visas.

As with other cultural practices, there exists a strong French bias against immigrant, religion and traditions. In 1925, France passed a law banning all state funding of religious institutions except for those, which had "cultural associations." In pursuant of this law, the religious institutions of immigrants- most of which are Muslim and do not have historical links in the community, are not eligible for state funds. The exclusion of Islam from French society is very apparent. There are religious schools under state supervision for Catholics, Protestants and Jews, but not for Muslims. While there are Catholic, Protestant and Jewish chaplains in the French army, there are no Muslim chaplains. This exclusion is troubling as there are indications that French Muslims are vastly outpacing French non-Muslims in birth rates.

Article 225-2 of the French Penal Code criminalizes discrimination in the workplace. However, this has proved to be largely inadequate and hardly acts as a deterrent. The victims, even after winning a criminal case, are neither reinstated to their former position nor are they given any compensation. Forms of implicit and explicit racism are manifest in employment ads, in phrases such as "BBR' (Bleu- Blane-Rouge), code for "French only'. The press publishes questionable announcements such as 'White woman wanted to care for elderly lady', 'No persons of colour. Impossible' and 'Position for intern of French cultural origin'. Certain jobs are restricted by law to French nationals, which has specifically raised CERD's concerns. Maurice Glele-Ahanhanzo, the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, in his special report on France, stated that the greatest discrimination in hiring was experienced by immigrants from Africa, followed by Turkish and Southeast Asian immigrants who remain marginalized from mainstream French life.

Subtle forms of racism are reflected in the educational system, symbolic of a total failure of racial integration in France. There is no disputing the fact that the most prestigious universities and graduate schools recruit almost all their students from a limited sociological pool of the white, the wealthy and the well connected.

While France has taken significant legal steps to eradicate racism and xenophobia from the country, these steps must be examined critically to ensure that the objectives of the laws are being realized. To substantiate its commitment to ending racial discrimination, France should conform to minimum standards of international human rights and join other European states to solve the problem of asylum seekers. A significant step would be to withdraw its reservation to Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.