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Living in France

Racism and Discrimination in France

Liberté, egalité, fraternité — France has done much to uphold its national motto. However, despite a range of legislations and measures against racism and for equal rights regardless of gender, religion, or sexual orientation, life in France is not always equal nor exactly fraternal.

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At a Glance:

  • Critics fear the French concept of absolute equality hampers measures to support racial, linguistic, or ethnic minority groups.
  • The Roma, Muslims, and Jews are frequent targets of racist discourse.
  • France is struggling to reconcile an ever tighter interpretation of laïcité — i.e. freedom of religion and the separation of state and religion — with religious minorities in general and Islam in particular.
  • The rights of women and LGBT people have been strengthened a lot this past decade, but there is still some way to go until full equality is reached.

The Dangers of Racist Discourse and Ghettoization

France has an exhaustive catalog of anti-racism legislations that outlaw racial discrimination, ban hate speech, and establish the legal role of anti-racist associations as partners of the government, among other things. Nevertheless, hate speech and racially motivated violent crime have been on the rise in France, according to the latest report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). The French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH) saw a decrease in reported racist acts for 2016. The ECRI, however, points out the presence of racism in politics’ discourse, something which was made painfully obvious during the run up of the 2017 elections: “What used to be taboo has now become commonplace in French politics and discourse,” according to one academic in an analysis of the far-right Front National’s near-success.

Liberté, egalité, fraternité — the national motto is a cornerstone of modern France and also incorporated in its constitution. The concept of absolute equality goes so far that, based on a 1978 law banning the collection and storage of race-related data, the French government does not even include any information on race or ethnicity in its census, for instance.

Critics say this approach has effectively rendered minorities in France invisible and hampers measures to directly support racial, linguistic, or ethnic minority groups. Instead, class or geographic criteria are used to target social problems, as for example in the banlieues. Especially in the latter, a de-facto ghettoization and racial profiling by the police show that the “color-blind” approach to race is not necessarily reflected in real life. Young French men of African descent are statistically less likely to get a job than their counterparts with a similar level of education, for instance.

Roma are also a frequent target of racist discourse and discrimination in France. Due to prevailing prejudices and their typically nomadic lifestyle, even access to basic rights such as participation in France’s political life or basic education for children can be made difficult for Roma nationals.

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A Rise in Islamophobia

According to the ECRI, Muslims in particular are regularly a target of racist discourse. There was a rising number of anti-Muslim attacks reported in reaction to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris and on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, for example.

The concept of laïcité — i.e. freedom of religion and the separation of state and religion — is regarded as a core value of France. However, according to some critics, narrow interpretations have been used to discriminate against religious minority groups, including Muslims. The 2004 law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools, for instance, caused much debate. It does not focus on a specific religion but generally forbids wearing noticeable religious signs at school. However, discussions at the time of its introduction focused primarily on Muslim girls wearing headscarves and many are of the opinion that the law continues to affect Muslim women disproportionally.

Similarly, bans of long swim wear in a number of French seaside cities in 2016 clearly targeted burkinis if not in word then in deed. The bans were later overruled by France’s State Council on the grounds of being an “illegal infringement of fundamental liberties”. However, developments like these show how France is struggling to reconcile an ever tighter interpretation of laïcité with religious minorities in general and Islam in particular.

An Ongoing Issue: Anti-Semitism

In the past few years, the focus of public discourse may have shifted more towards the role Islam plays in French identity, however, the country has struggled and continues to struggle with anti-Semitism: according to a 2014 opinion poll conducted by the Foundation for Political Innovation (Fondapol) and the survey institute IFOP, 16% of all respondents consider French Jews as “less French”. The ECRI had noticed an increase in anti-Semitic acts by nearly 40 percent between 2012 and 2014 and there were deadly attacks on a Jewish school in 2012 and a kosher supermarket in 2015.

Bridging the Gender Gap

There are a range of legislation to promote and protect gender equality in France, with a 2014 law further addressing equality at work, parental leave, gender stereotypes in the media, parity in politics, and the protection from domestic abuse just the latest reform. In 2012, the Ministry for Women’s Rights was reestablished. However, while the legal framework for gender equality has been well-developed, equality in reality is still some way off.

This is particularly true in regard to equal pay: reported numbers for women’s salaries range from 91% to 75% of men’s — the higher a position, the less women make when compared to their male counterparts. Similarly, there are reports of indirect and direct discrimination against female entrepreneurs, in particular.

In politics, parity rules apply on all but small-town municipal levels, although female representation is still low. Following the 2017 election, women now hold close to 40% of the seats in parliament — a steep rise from a previous 25% — and make up half of President Macron’s cabinet.

Strengthening the Rights of LGBT People

According to the Eurobarometer 2015 survey, close to three-quarters of people in France believe that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is widespread, against an EU28 average of 58%. Homophobic hate speech was particularly prevalent in 2013, when tens of thousands protested the legalization of same-sex marriage and adoption under the Manif pour Tous campaign. The protest movement against the “marriage for all” saw a revival in the run-up to the 2017 elections despite little chance of the law being repealed.

In general, France ranks among the top 5 European countries on the 2017 ILGA-Europe Rainbow map, which reflects the legal and human-rights situation of LGBTI people in Europe. The country’s recent improvement in this ranking is, among other things, thanks to legislation introduced in 2016 that now no longer requires medical treatment for the legal recognition of a different gender. However, as of 2017, artificial insemination is still restricted to heterosexual couples.

Updated on: December 11, 2019
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