France must tackle ‘systemic’ discrimination, says rights watchdog

Protesters hold up placards calling for an end to racism and other forms of discrimination at a rally in Paris on June 21, 2020.
Protesters hold up placards calling for an end to racism and other forms of discrimination at a rally in Paris on June 21, 2020. © Abdulmonam Eassa, AFP

France's human rights ombudsman said Monday that authorities needed to take measures to halt racial discrimination that has become a "systemic element" of French society, calling for an "ambitious" public policy response.

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"People with foreign origins, or perceived as having them, are disadvantaged in terms of access to jobs or housing," according to a new report from the government's Défenseur des Droits (Rights Defender) agency led by Jacques Toubon, a former justice minister.

"They are more exposed to joblessness, poverty, poor housing, police ID checks, poor health and educational inequality," it said.

The report came as France has seen a series of rallies against racism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States sparked by the killing of Floyd George by a white police officer.

>> ‘Black and treated as such’: France’s anti-racism protests expose myth of colour-blind Republic

It cited surveys from 2016, the most recent, that found that 11 percent of respondents reported incidents of discrimination because of their skin colour over the previous five years, up from six percent in 2008.

"Discrimination is not the result of individual responses, a few human resource directors who refuse to hire blacks or Arabs," Toubon wrote. "It's the entire system that is to blame."

He called for the creation of a "discrimination observatory" to better document alleged cases, and national "testing" operations to uncover racial biases in employment and housing markets.

Legal authorities should make it easier to prove discrimination cases in court and ensure that penalties are "genuinely dissuasive", he added.

‘Skin colour is not neutral’

Toubon's warning comes two weeks after he raised the alarm over a "crisis of public confidence in the security forces", urging a reversal of what he described as a "warring mentality" in law enforcement. 

It comes after Human Rights Watch said this month that French police have "overly broad" powers "to conduct discriminatory and abusive checks on black and Arab boys and men", leaving too much room for arbitrary and biased decisions.

A 2009 study by France's National Centre for Scientific Research showed that blacks were 11.5 times more likely to be checked by police than whites, and those of Arab origin seven times more likely.

President Emmanuel Macron vowed an "uncompromising" fight against racism in a televised address this month, acknowledging that "the name, the address, the colour of the skin" can affect a person's chances in life.

But since 1978, France has prohibited the collection of data on a person's race, ethnicity, or political or religious opinions for the national census or other surveys.

Critics say the policy, meant to underscore equality before the law, prevents the country from having a better understanding of the inequalities faced by many of its citizens.

Speaking ahead of Macron’s address, government spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye — a close Macron ally and the most prominent black figure in current French politics — wrote an unusually personal op-ed in Le Monde calling for France to rethink its colour-blind doctrine, which aims at encouraging equality by ignoring race altogether.

“We must not hesitate to name things, to say that a skin colour is not neutral,” she wrote. Ndiaye called on the French to “confront our memories” about their history and find a “shared narrative” with former colonies.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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