Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: French, Breton, Corsican, Catalan, Basque, German, Occitan, Flemish, Arabic, Berber
Main religions: Roman Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, Judaism
The French Ministry of Culture and Communication recognizes 14 distinct minority languages and two minority language groups in metropolitan France, and 47 minority languages in the French overseas territories. The 14 distinct languages are: Western Flemish (extreme north-west), Alsatian, Francique (north-east), Franco-Provençal (south central), Corsican (Corsica), Catalan (south), Basque (south-west) and Breton (north-west), Maghrebi Arabic, Western Armenian, Berber, Romani, Judeo-Spanish and Yiddish. There are 10 recognized Oïl languages: Picard, Norman, Gallo (north-west), Walloon, Champenois (north), Poitevin, Saintongeais, Burgundian (north central), Franc-Comtois, Lorrain (north-east). There are six recognized Oc languages: Limousin, Auvergnat (south central), Vivaro-Alpin, Provençal (south-east), Languedocian (south) and Gascon (south-west). In addition there are four variants of French Creole in the French regions of Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana and Réunion; four variants of Anglo-Portuguese Creole and six Amer-Indian languages in French Guyana; 28 Melanesian languages in New Caledonia; seven Polynesian languages in French Polynesia; two Malayo-Polynesian languages in Wallis and Futuna; and two Bantu languages in Mayotte.
In line with its tradition of secularism, the collection of information about an individual’s ethnicity or religious beliefs has been prohibited since 1872. Consequently, there is no official data available on the composition of France’s ethnic or religious minorities. In terms of religion, some data sources have suggested that the majority (between 63 and 66 per cent) of the population are Christian, predominantly Roman Catholic, with 7-9 per cent Muslim and smaller groups (amounting to less than 1 per cent) of Buddhists and Jews, with between 23 and 28 per cent having no religious beliefs. There is significant overlap between ethnicity and religion, with many of the country’s Muslim population originating from North Africa.
Some official data is available on language, however, with public statistical data from the 1999 census estimating 650,000 Alsatian speakers (plus 230,000 occasional speakers), 50,000 Basque speakers, 280,000 Breton speakers (plus 600,000 occasional speakers), 110,00 Catalan speakers, 70,000 Corsican speakers (with 100,000 occasional speakers), 30,000 Flemish speakers (plus 50,000 occasional speakers), 600,000 Occitan speakers (with 1.6 million occasional speakers) and other regional languages.
The same data provides estimates of around 200,000 Romany speakers, 950,000 speakers of different Arabic dialects (plus 220,000 occasional speakers) and 1.5 – 2 million speakers of different Berber dialects.
Updated June 2019
France, one of the most ethnically and religiously heterogeneous countries in Europe, including large Muslim, Jewish and Roma populations, has long struggled with profound divisions driven by inequality and cultural fears. The country’s social fragmentation has been brought into sharper focus by the rapid rise in recent years of right-wing political organizations. Once a fringe political party, the Front National (renamed Rassemblement National or National Rally in 2018) has under the leadership of Marine Le Pen attracted a growing share of votes through a campaign that has actively targeted migrants and minorities, particularly Muslims. The increasingly polarized attitude within French society around issues such as migration, diversity and religion, in particular Islam, has driven support for the anti-Muslim, anti-EU agenda of Le Pen’s party. In the May 2019 European elections, Rassemblement National narrowly beat President Francois Macron’s coalition.
The lack of social integration and spatial segregation of many of France’s minorities, particularly its marginalized Muslim population, has played a major role in the perpetuation of this divide. Studies have found that certain ethnic groups, such as those of African descent, find it harder to move out of poor suburbs and are three times more likely to move into the least advantaged neighbourhoods. Spatial segregation also has an impact on unemployment, with recent immigrants facing much longer commutes, thereby restricting their access to jobs and adding to the barriers already raised by frequent discrimination against individuals of North African origin. The inequalities evident in Paris’s suburbs or banlieues are visible in the poor level of housing, high rates of unemployment and the securitization of these urban fringes. Although tension has not reached the levels witnessed during the 2005 riots, crime in the banlieues remains a serious concern.
As a result, the integration of immigrants and their descendants in French society has become a high priority for the government, with significant investments in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. However, research conducted on the social exclusion experienced by immigrants in France concluded that the government’s continued push for assimilation, together with the French political tradition of secularism (laïcité), may have prevented the state from tackling discrimination and in the process alienated some minorities. For example, France’s law banning the wearing of full-face coverings on the grounds that their use reduced opportunities for ‘living together’ has been condemned by various rights groups as a breach of the rights of freedom of religion and expression. These measures have also been widely interpreted as targeting Muslims specifically, playing out not only in national restrictions on the wearing of the burqa, hijab or full-face veil in public, but also in local policies in municipalities controlled by right-wing politicians that have seen pork-free options removed from school menus.
But while popular hostility towards French Muslims has been driven in part by fears of supposed ‘Islamification’, a series of violent incidents in Paris and elsewhere have also served to stoke up anti-Muslim sentiment. This included an attack in 7 January 2015 on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, allegedly in revenge for their publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and a sequence of other attacks that culminated in shootings at a Jewish supermarket in the city’s eastern suburbs on 9 January, killing a total of 17 people. Though the attacks were among the worst the country had experienced in many years, they were followed by an even bloodier attack in November 2015, when a series of coordinated suicide bombings and shootings targeting cafés, restaurants, a music venue and near the Stade de France stadium left 130 people dead and injured more than 350. In the aftermath, while authorities announced a national emergency and greatly extended their powers to search and arrest, hate crimes against Muslims increased significantly. Further attacks have followed since, including an attack in Nice in July 2016 where a man drove a truck into a crowd, killing 86 people. Other deadly incidents include the stabbing to death of a 20-year-old woman and 17-year-old girl in Marseilles in September 2017, shootings in Carcasonne and Trèbes in March 2018 that left three dead and several others injured, and an attack by a gunman in Strasbourg in December 2018 that killed five people and wounded 11. These and other incidents have contributed to the increasingly hostile environment towards Muslims in France.
The Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits de L’Homme (CNCDH, National Consultative Commission on Human Rights) reported that the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2015, following the Charlie Hebdo attack, more than tripled from the previous year to a total of 429 incidents. More recent data indicates that anti-Muslim hate crimes have since declined, with 100 incidents reported in 2018, for instance. Nevertheless, Islamophobia remains a very significant issue. Organizations that combat Islamophobia also warn that there is significant under-reporting due to a lack of trust that the authorities will actually take action on victims’ behalf.
A further impact of the series of incidents of extremist violence has been the French government’s security response. A national security bill was adopted by the National Assembly with a large majority in October 2017, albeit with some amendments to increase the role of judges and insert an automatic expiration date of 2020 for most aspects. The authorities were granted wide-ranging powers to: designate public spaces as security zones; limit the movement of people considered a national security threat; conduct house searches following approval by a judge; close places of worship; and establish a 10-km zone around ports and airports where identity checks can take place. With the new law in place, the French authorities declared an end to a nearly 2-year long state of emergency on 1 November 2017. Human rights groups warned that the new legislation risks making what should be only temporary security measures part of ordinary law.
France is also home to approximately 500,000 Jewish people – the largest Jewish community in Europe. However, a significant number have been emigrating in recent years. While the attack on a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris shortly after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015, where 15 Jewish people were held hostage and four were killed, was particularly extreme, anti-Semitic hate crime and hate speech more generally remain a real issue. According to figures released by the CNCDH, anti-Semitic acts in France including death threats, online hate speech and physical assaults on people wearing the kippah and other religious markers are ongoing: they recorded a rise of 74 per cent in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2018 to 541, up from 311 in 2017. Particularly horrific has been a series of targeted killings with the eleventh Jewish victim in a dozen years murdered in March 2018.
These and other anti-Semitic incidents have led some French Jews to seek a new life and emigrate to Israel. However, the numbers leaving the country are not as great as was foreseen after the tragic events of 2015. There were 6,628 French Jewish people who emigrated that year to Israel, but the number dropped to 3,157 in 2017. While the question of emigration is very much alive in the community, the practical problems of starting a new life in another country are reportedly making many hesitate – at least for now.
France is also home to the second largest Roma community after Spain among Western European countries. France’s Roma community occupy marginal positions in society, living on the outskirts of cities, with many in abandoned houses and segregated settlements. Roma face a number of obstacles in accessing education, employment and housing. Furthermore, they continue to face ongoing violence and discrimination, encouraged in part the French government’s harsh policies towards them: their illegal camps are systematically demolished by public authorities and many are often deported to their home countries. Indeed, the eviction of Roma has become routine, entrenching their marginalization within society. In 2017 over 11,309 Roma were forced to leave their homes, including 8,161 who were forcibly evicted by the authorities. This amounted to more than six out of every ten Roma families in the country and represented a 12 per cent increase over 2016. Roma remain one of the most stigmatized communities in the country, as demonstrated by the findings of a CNCDH report published in April 2019. While indices of tolerance overall were at their highest ever recorded, averaging 67 points, this varied considerably from community to community: while reported levels of tolerance reached 79 points towards those of Africa descent, towards Roma the proportion was less than half this (35 points).
One tactic employed to promote integration, as an alternative to eviction, has been the construction of so-called ‘insertion villages’, housing developments in existing towns, where certain Roma, selected using ‘social diagnostics’ on the basis of their education levels, language skills and job prospects, are rehoused in temporary facilities and provided with basic services and schooling for a limited period. However, these methods have been criticized for being akin to social engineering, with the new settlements merely formalizing segregation and benefitting only a small sub-section of the Roma population.
Social prejudice in France towards its Muslim minority has also shaped its response to the refugee crisis in Europe, with thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from largely Islamic countries like Syria seeking sanctuary in the country. This has led to increasing tensions in certain areas, particularly the coastal town of Calais, where some locals set up vigilante groups that reportedly carried out attacks on refugees. Eventually, in 2016, demolition works in the open-air, state-sanctioned Calais refugee camp dubbed ‘the Jungle’ commenced. Human rights organizations warned that this action risked making people already vulnerable to social and economic issues even more so. Since then, refugees and migrants in the Calais area have been forced to survive in dire conditions, prompting the UN Special Rapporteur on housing to rebuke the French government in April 2019 for their failure to provide adequate shelter and the continued practice of evictions that exacerbated these issues. There are also ongoing concerns about the use of inappropriate age determination processes and the detention of many migrant children.
France is primarily a mainland territory in western Europe, which borders Belgium and Luxembourg in the north, Germany, Switzerland and Italy in the east, the Mediterranean Sea in the south, Spain in the south-west, the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the English Channel in the north-west. The island of Corsica in the Mediterranean is one of France’s 22 metropolitan regions. The islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean and French Guyana in South America, and Réunion in the Indian Ocean are overseas regions of France. The archipelagos of St Pierre et Miquelon near Canada, Wallis and Futuna Islands in the Pacific and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean are French territorial collectivities. There are two Pacific island groups, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, which have the status of French ‘overseas countries’ granting them the highest degree of local autonomy within the French context. New Caledonia will hold a referendum in 2018 on whether to stay part of France or become independent.
From the end of the eleventh century France became progressively more united as a state and power was more centralized. French became the language of public administration in 1539, replacing Latin. Other Romance languages, dialects of French, and separate languages such as Breton, Basque, Flemish and German were widely spoken in their respective areas. The 1789 French Revolution had a strongly centralizing effect: provincial traditions were eroded, and local languages and cultures were banned. The French language was promoted as a means of inculcating nation-state consciousness. Universal education was introduced in 1793 with standard French as the language of instruction. Centralization was intensified under Napoleon and continued after his defeat in 1815 and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. The building of the railways and expansion of the canal networks in the later nineteenth century helped hasten the decline of regional languages.
French minority languages continued to be used, especially in oral communication between ordinary people. In the late nineteenth century there was a flourishing of literature in some languages, for example Breton and Occitan, which transformed them into languages of the intellectual elite, while their use in everyday life declined.
France acquired colonies in the Caribbean, North America and Africa in the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth century, exotic foods were imported from a number of different countries, including Africa, India and North America. State sponsorship of industries, particularly the manufacture of luxury goods, began under King Louis XIV in the seventeenth century. Quality standards were set. In the eighteenth century the French economy grew rapidly from mining, metal industries, textiles and trade. Nantes was the main port, and the centre of the French slave trade. Paris became the main commercial centre in the late eighteenth century. Poor harvests in the 1770s and 1780s led to mass poverty and the 1789 Revolution. Political turmoil and war in the next 25 years directed industrialization towards armaments, munitions and processed foods. There was further colonial expansion in Africa, Asia and the Pacific in the nineteenth century and in the Middle East in the twentieth century.
The loss of Alsace and the German-speaking part of Lorraine to Germany in 1871 was a major blow to national pride and prompted the determination to win back these regions. This helped fuel an arms race with Germany and Austria, led to alliance with Britain and ultimately led to World War I. The return of Alsace and Lorraine to France at the end of the war, and the crippling war reparations demanded of Germany by the Peace of Versailles in 1919, fuelled German determination to regain this territory, which it did in World War II when it occupied much of France and the Vichy government kept the rest of France independent only by complying with the Nazi occupiers. Approximately 76,000 Jews were deported from France to eastern Europe during World War II. The majority were murdered at Auschwitz concentration camp; only some 2,500 of those deported survived the Holocaust. Jewish organizations saved many Jewish children by hiding them in the countryside and distributing fake identity documentation. While French police in the occupied zone and members of the Vichy regime assisted in the round-ups and deportations, several thousand French people have been recognised for their bravery in hiding Jews. Bitter reprisals were taken against collaborators after the Germans were defeated.
French industrial expansion in the nineteenth century, the war effort for the two world wars, and labour shortages after both those wars resulted in mass immigration, especially from North Africa but also from the Caribbean and sub-Saharan African colonies. Immigrants also came from other European countries, notably Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia and Poland. Although most workers initially stayed only a short time, to be replaced with others, some formed permanent and growing communities. Colonial subjects had the right to French nationality, although Algerians had to renounce Islam and convert to Christianity in order to obtain citizenship, and most did not. The liberation of France’s African colonies in the late 1950s to 1962 and France’s membership of the European Economic Community led to reduced rights for former colonial subjects from Africa. The conflict which resulted in independence for Algeria in 1962 was particularly bitter and has left a legacy of mutual antagonism between parts of the French and Algerian immigrant communities. Some Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Pacific and North Atlantic colonies have remained part of France.
In recent years, driven in part by growing tensions around migration and a series of high-profile terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists in Paris and elsewhere, there has been an upsurge in support for far-right political organizations, in particular the Front National (renamed Rassemblement National or National Rally in 2018), led by Marine Le Pen since 2011. Le Pen took steps to soften the party’s image in an effort to rebrand it to a wider audience. While this has involved it moving away from certain positions – for example, the party’s historic anti-Semitism and homophobia – it has aggressively campaigned on an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim platform that has particularly targeted France’s sizeable North African minority around issues such as integration, security and cultural rights. This approach has brought the party’s unprecedented levels of support, with Le Pen finishing second in the 2017 presidential election with 34 per cent of the vote.
The French revolutionary government adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789, which recognizes the equality of all before the law. This has provided the basis for civil rights in all subsequent French Constitutions, the latest dating from 1958. There have been several amendments to the current Constitution. In 2003 the French overseas regions and territories were reorganized. The Constitution recognizes freedom of religion.
France is one of the most centralized of European states. Education, the law and public administration are all conducted in standard French. Minority languages are taught in school, but mostly as an optional extra subject. Bilingual education was introduced in the 1990s in Alsace and Lorraine, Brittany and Corsica, initiated by private associations, taken up by regional governments and then supported by the central government. The 1951 Deixonne Act, 1975 Haby Act, 1994 Toublon Act, 1995 regulations on regional languages, and the 2002 regulations on bilingual education provide the basis for the teaching of regional languages. The 2001 law creating a Conseil Académique des Langues Régionales was put into effect through the establishment of 19 Academies of regional languages at universities in the regions concerned, one each for Basque, Catalan, Corsu, Alsatian and Platt; two for Breton; four for Creole; and eight for Occitan. In December 2006, the French National Assembly rejected an amendment for the constitutional recognition of regional languages. Article 2 of the Constitution, which states that ‘the language of the Republic is French’ (and which was only introduced in 1992 prior to the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty) has constituted an obstacle to the ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (signed in 1999). The Constitutional Court found that some of the articles of the Charter would give specific rights to minority/regional language speakers and were therefore not compatible with the French Constitution. The Constitution was revised in 2008 to include article 75/1, recognizing the country’s regional languages. However, France has signed and declared but has yet to ratify the European Charter on Minority Languages.
The 1905 law disestablishing the Roman Catholic Church as the state religion of France bans discrimination on the grounds of religion. It also allows the state to provide funding and tax relief for approved religious organizations. In order to benefit from this, religions must have a single representative body. Central or local governments own and maintain religious buildings constructed before the 1905 law separating religion and state. The government partially funded the establishment of the country’s oldest Islamic house of worship, the Paris Grand Mosque, in 1926. In Alsace and Moselle, special laws allow the local governments to provide support for the building of religious edifices, and the followers of the Jewish, Lutheran, Reformed and Roman Catholic faiths can opt to allocate part of their income tax to their religious organization. A 2001 law allows for the closure of religious groups under certain circumstances.
The French state’s promotion of secularist policies, such as the ‘Charter for Secularity in School’ announced by the government in September 2013, has alienated many members of non-Christian groups, such as Sikhs and Muslims. The charter effectively reiterates the principles of the 2004 legal prohibition of ‘ostentatious’ religious symbols which, while not targeting any specific religious group, impacts particularly on wearers of the veil and turban. Similarly, as a result of the 2011 ban on full-face coverings in public places, a fine or mandatory citizenship training can be imposed on anyone apprehended for wearing a full-face veil, such as a burqa or hijab, in a public place.
Citizenship and France’s new immigrants
France grants the automatic right to French citizenship to all children born in France, but the right is conditional for the children of foreign nationals, who must be living in France when they apply for citizenship at age 18 and have lived in France for at least five years after age 11. There is a special identity card for these children until they reach adulthood, which allows them to travel in some other European countries. Foreign nationals can apply for citizenship if they have been living in France for five years, or for two years if they have successfully completed two years of higher education in France, or immediately if they have the right special skills to offer.
The French government actively recruited immigrants until 1974 on account of labour shortages. Immigrants were meant to be temporary guest workers, returning home and being replaced by others. But the right to French nationality granted to citizens of the colonies made it difficult for the authorities to send them home. The National Office of Immigration was set up in 1946 to organize immigration, but employers continued to recruit undocumented immigrants for lower salaries. By the 1960s over three-quarters of immigrants were ‘clandestins’. From 1974 some illegal immigrants were deported. In January 1994 the Central Directorate for Immigration Control was set up to control immigration and the employment of immigrants.
Assimilation policies for legal immigrants largely failed in the 1960s and 1970s and the government adopted a policy of integration from the mid-1980s, supporting minority community cultural organizations. From 2003, government policy reverted to assimilation with new immigrants required to attend courses on French language and culture in order to qualify for residence permits. Government funding switched from minority cultural associations to the assimilation courses.
The 1881 law on the press freedom prohibits libel and slander and defamatory speech and writing against a group of people. The 1972 Pleven law extended this ban to racist speech and writing against individuals, and created the offences of incitement to hatred or racial violence and of discrimination. The 1990 Gayssot law bans Holocaust denial. From 2001 the Labour Code bans direct and indirect discrimination in recruitment, training, pay and promotion, and dismissal. The burden of proof was altered so that the victim must present evidence of the likelihood of discrimination but does not have to prove it. The 2003 Lellouche law increases the severity with which racist and anti-Semitic offences are judged, but indirect discrimination is not taken into account in the Criminal Code. France created a High Authority against Discrimination and for Equality in December 2004. The new Labour Code, Lellouche law and High Authority bring French law into compliance with the European Union (EU) directives against racial discrimination and discrimination in employment.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits de l’Homme (CNCDH)
EBLUL-France (Bureau européen des langues moins répandues)
Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l’égalité
Institut Kurde de Paris
Maison des Travailleurs de Turquie
Mouvement contre le Racisme et pour l’Amitié entre les Peuples (MRAP)
[Écoles en Basque]
French Turban Action Committee
Centre Inter-Régional de Développement de l’Occitan (CIRDOC)
Institut d’Études Occitanes
Lo Bornat dau Perigòrd
Oc per Tot
[Non-profit organization for the promotion of Occitan culture through design]
[Web TV in French and Occitan]
Ofici per l’occitan
Alsatians and Lorrainians
Conseil Régional d’Alsace
Culture & Bilinguisme d’Alsace et de Moselle
Neues Elsass-Lothringen Verlag
Office pour la Langue et la Culture d’Alsace
[Bookshop with Alsatian books]
Office de la Langue Bretonne/Ofis ar Brezhoneg
Conseil Culturel de Bretagne/Kuzel Sevenadurel Breizh
Institut Culturel de Bretagne
Website : http://www.ouest-france.fr
Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF)
Fonds Social Juif Unifié
Fondation du Judaïsme Français
Mémorial de la Shoah (and documentation centre)
Alliance Israélite Universelle
[Union des Communautés Juives de France]
Centre Communautaire de Paris
Mouvement juif libéral de France (MJLF)
Bureau du Chabbath
L’Unione Corsa d’Antibes-Juan-Les-Pins
Università di Corsica Pasquale Paoli
Association Culture Berbère du Val d’Oise
[Language courses in Kabyle, promotion of Berber culture]
Association de Culture Berbère
Association des Travailleurs Maghrebins de France
Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (CFCM)
Fédération Nationale des Musulmans de France (FNMF)
Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UOIF)
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in