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1 October 2007

The United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues, Gay J. McDougall, issued the following press release on 28 September in Paris:

“During her official mission to France, the United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues, Gay J. McDougall, found that serious discrimination is experienced by members of minority communities in France and she called on the French Government to respond with policies that address effectively widespread, entrenched and institutionalized discrimination in French society.

“Racism is alive, insidious and clearly targeted at those “visible” minorities of immigrant heritage, the majority of whom are French citizens”, the Independent Expert stated.

“Young people’s hopes and dreams are being denied; they see no possibility of upward mobility because of their skin colour, their religion, their surname or their address (in what’s called the sensitive suburbs). People who have worked hard, played by all the rules and truly believe in the principles of the French Republic are trapped in socially and geographically isolated urban ghettos, with unemployment in some areas over 40 per cent. They feel discriminated against and rejected by rigid notions of French national identity to which they do not conform”, she said.

The Independent Expert expressed her concern about statements made by French political leaders and candidates during the electoral period that have been viewed as at best unwelcoming and at worst of a racist nature. She stated that the messages coming from the highest officials of the state must be unambiguous in signaling full commitment to promoting equality and diversity in practice.

“The Constitutional promise of equality is the vision, but not the reality of modern France. France’s leaders must live up to that promise”, she stated.

Ms. McDougall visited France between 19 and 28 September. She traveled to Paris, Marseilles and Strasbourg, during which she held consultations with Ministers and other senior governmental representatives, NGOs and civil society groups, religious leaders, academics and others working in the field of minority issues, discrimination, racism and gender issues. Ms McDougall visited the suburbs of Paris and Marseilles, including Bobigny and La Courneuve, areas affected by urban upheavals in 2005, to talk directly to community members about their lives and hear their stories and concerns. She also held forums specifically for minority women. She concluded that the particular problems faced by people in these ghettos is a direct consequence of racial discrimination and consequently require policy initiatives targeted to address the special circumstances that they face.

France has historically rejected the concept of minority rights and recognition of minority groups as incompatible with the French Constitution and the principles of the Republic, which prioritize individual rights, equality, unity and universalism. The Independent Expert commended recent anti-discrimination initiatives including the 2005 anti-discrimination law and the establishment of the High Authority to Fight Discrimination and Promote Equality (HALDE), an independent body with powers to mediate or refer for prosecution discrimination cases, conduct studies and promote non-discrimination activities. While welcoming the role of the HALDE and civil society organizations in prosecuting discrimination on a case-by-case basis, she emphasized that a broader and more robust approach is required. Penalties for discrimination should be sufficiently severe to act as a deterrent to future violations. “Currently”, she commented, “the fines imposed seem to belittle the whole exercise of combating discrimination”.

Ms. McDougall calls for the promotion of equality through robust affirmative action policies. “Non-discrimination is just the first step in establishing equality.” In the area of employment, for example, she believes that more must be done and can be done easily to create opportunities for all and to transform the ranks of the civil service, the police, and other public institutions to reflect the broad diversity within French citizenry.

Rather than being considered to violate the Constitution of the French Republic, the Independent Expert commented that “such action on the part of the Government should be seen as essential to achieving a true vision of “Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité”. The acknowledgement of ethnicity, religion and heritage should not be considered to threaten the principles of unity and equality that are the foundation of French society”.

The Independent Expert commends President Nicolas Sarkozy for opening a public discussion on affirmative action policies. But she regrets that the terminology that he used sent mixed messages about his support for such initiatives. When you hear national leaders using the term “positive discrimination” it sounds like a coded instruction to reject the concept; the term conjures up misleading perceptions of privileges given to those from certain backgrounds.

“Much more also remains to be done to establish an acceptance of cultural diversity. Currently, there is a widespread feeling within the communities of new minorities that to become a citizen of France is not sufficient for full acceptance; that acceptance will be granted only with total assimilation that forces them to reject major facets of their identities. Only when a way is found to shed the color of their skins, hide the manifestations of their religion or the traditions of their ancestors, only then will they be accepted as truly French. The message that they take from the name of the new Ministry of Immigration, National Identity, Integration and Co-development seems to be that the presence and increasing numbers of people of immigrant heritage is a threat to the national identity of France; that it is a problem that must be solved”, she stated.

The Independent Expert received information from numerous sources regarding the situation of many groups within French society, including the Roma/travelers, the Breton and the Jewish community, that will be reflected in her full visit report to the UN Human Rights Council. She focused particular attention on the experiences of French citizens of immigrant heritage, settled residents of France, sometimes described as “new” minorities, including those of North African, sub-Saharan origin, Muslims, and those from the overseas departments and territories.

Visits to minority communities where the Independent Expert held forums for community members revealed frustration amongst many French citizens of immigrant origin that despite their own strong commitment to French values and principles of equality, they remain second class citizens, lacking the opportunities available to others, and blamed for “communitarianism” when in fact they are given little choice other than to live in isolated low cost housing “ghettos”. Concern was also expressed to the Independent Expert regarding current debates on immigration, announcing quotas for deportations, and questions of DNA testing for example, which generate a general climate of suspicion and negativity against those of immigrant origin”.

The mandate of the Independent Expert was established in 2005 to promote implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and to identify successful practices on the issues addressed by her mandate.

Ms. Gay McDougall, the first Independent Expert on minority issues, is a former member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the Sub-Commission on Human Rights. She was Executive Director of the NGO Global Rights until April 2006, and is currently Scholar in Residence at the American University, Washington.

For more information about the role and function of the Independent Expert, please visit the homepage http://www.ohchr.org/english/issues/minorities/expert/index.htm


For use of information media; not an official record