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French unrest – minority rights solutions required to tackle the reality of racism

10 November 2005

The violence taking place across France in recent days must be acknowledged not only as a criminal act, but as a demonstration of long-term minority neglect, social exclusion, and the need to promote and protect minority rights. According to Minority Rights Group International (MRG) France’s assimilationist policy of minority denial, while founded on a desire for ‘colour blind’ equality, fails to address the reality of widespread discrimination, racism and exclusion, and must be reconsidered.

MRG suggests that the violence that has shocked France and other European states demonstrates the need for progressive policies of social reform that acknowledge inherent inequality. In France, as in numerous other states, pressure has been building for years amongst communities and individuals who feel marginalized, discriminated against and un-represented. There are currently no non-white minority MPs from mainland France, few minorities hold senior posts in political or economic fields, and minorities are almost ‘invisible’ in the media. High unemployment and low incomes, poor housing and service provision and few opportunities have left many members of minority communities including Arabs or Muslims of African origin angry and feeling abandoned by the state – and with few obvious avenues of redress.

France has followed a radically different policy towards its minorities to that of many of its European neighbours. While the current violence demonstrates the weakness of the French ‘denial of minorities’ model, it is also true that this policy has met with support amongst many elements of French elite society, and some minority leaders themselves. Factors such as economic stagnation and resulting unemployment, have contributed to increasing social and economic division within French society. However French policies have failed to fully address the disproportionate impact on minorities or their extremely high representation amongst France’s poor and impoverished communities.

Many French politicians continue to respond to the unrest as a purely ‘criminal’ issue, rather than as a phenomenon based on more deep-rooted racism and discrimination. They have called for short-term, hard-line ‘law and order’ responses, which fail to offer any solutions to more fundamental social problems. According to MRG, such measures may contribute to a continuation of the unrest. The hard-line response has already seen media reports of a ‘fast-track’ judicial process that has delivered custodial sentences after apparently inadequate hearings. Such actions may foster further distrust of state authorities by those who have already taken to the streets.

France has followed an extreme position in regard to its denial of minorities and has been criticised by the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) for its reservation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Article 27 relating to minority rights. There have however been recent signs that this approach may have been softening given the reality of minorities (old and new) existing in France and their persistent problems. France is due to consider further anti-discrimination legislation like all EU member states, and issues including the Islamic ‘headscarf’ debate have further focused attention and criticism on its attitude towards minorities.

Director of MRG, Mark Lattimer, stated: ‘In an attempt to be ‘colour blind’, French policy makers have simply become blind to the reality of daily discrimination suffered by minorities. The current unrest has taken years in the making and will need to be calmed over the coming days by a government that demonstrates that it accepts the need for widespread reform and consultation. It is being confronted by its own disempowered, angry and frustrated poor, who lack a full stake in society, and whose actions are a demand for change.’

MRG stated that the long-term solution to the unrest is for France to come into line with increasingly acknowledged minimum standards on minority rights including the Council of Europe’s (CoE) Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM). France is one of only two member states of the Council of Europe not to have signed the FCNM – the other being Turkey. In the short term, confidence building measures, including consultations with community leaders as the first stage in a longer process should be immediately implemented. While France has implemented numerous social reform, employment and urban development initiatives in the past, new social cohesion plans must learn the lessons of past failure and build on positive experiences of other European states in regard to minority rights.

MRG has highlighted the fact that the European Union has demonstrated double standards in regard to EU accession countries. Accession states have been pushed to fall into line with strict criteria in the field of human and minority rights. However, many long-standing European states with significant and on-going minority rights issues, have not been subject to the same pressure to fulfil their own obligations under international standards including the FCNM. MRG points out that inequality and exclusion are often persistent yet ‘hidden’ problems in many European societies, and that all states must ensure effective implementation and monitoring of anti-discrimination and minority rights legislation and practice.

In order to move forward constructively, France must now reconsider its domestic policies and acknowledge the reality of the situation of minorities. Important to any solution is a need to identify and acknowledge the root causes of the recent violence. Tokenistic consultation must be replaced by full and effective participation in a process leading to greater understanding and widespread reform. An anti-discrimination policy that addresses issues of discrimination including in employment, policing, housing and service provision, should be implemented as a matter of urgency. MRG has highlighted the need for disaggregated data, currently unavailable in France, to reveal the victims of discrimination and exclusion and enable the state to respond appropriately to the needs of specific communities.

MRG calls for community and religious leaders to make every effort to end the unrest and to establish constructive dialogue between the government and communities. It further calls on the government to ensure a proportionate response to, and measures against those arrested for crimes associated with the unrest in a manner conforming to international standards of fair trial.