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Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination considers the report of France

Committee on the Elimination 
of Racial Discrimination

29 April 2015

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today concluded its consideration of the combined twentieth and twenty-first periodic report of France on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Introducing the report, Thomas Wagner, Deputy Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that France, like the rest of the world, was facing new challenges in racism and all forms of discrimination, and was actively fighting hate crimes and racism.  The National Action Plan against Racism and Anti-Semitism 2015-2017 was in place, as was the Anti-Discrimination Unit to deal with instances of racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination, while France had strengthened its legal arsenal to deal with racism, including against hate speech on the Internet.  Concrete measures were taken to guarantee effective equality and solidarity of those most vulnerable among the population and the reform of the integration policies had been ongoing since 2013, with the objective of providing equal access to health, education, employment and combatting discrimination in all facets of public action.

The National Consultative Commission for Human Rights expressed regret that there had been no evaluation of the previous National Action Plan against Racism and Anti-Semitism which would feed into the new one, and that it had not been consulted in the preparation of the Plan.  There was a need to adapt public policy to ethnic statistics and to promote the use of discrimination indicators in access to employment, housing, goods and services.  Concerning hate speech online, the Consultative Commission considered that the legal arsenal in place needed to be reinforced and called on France to authorise judges to suspend or even close down a website which incited to racial hatred.

Committee Experts noted with satisfaction the existence of significant legislation in France to uphold equality and the existence of significant human rights bodies and sound civil society organizations, but remarked that the principle of equality was not always reflected on the ground.  There was an impression that freedom of expression enabled hate speech by the politicians, and Experts urged France to reconsider its position about the criminalization of hate speech and establish new procedures to deal with the phenomenon of hate speech on the Internet.  Concerns were raised about the treatment of Roma and Traveller communities, explicit discrimination against Muslims, and the situation of indigenous peoples in overseas territories, including the violations of the rights of Kanaks in New Caledonia, the denial of access to natural resources to indigenous peoples in French Guyana, and the stripping of a great number of Mahorais in Mayotte of their fundamental rights.  Experts inquired about measures to promote the situation of disadvantaged members of the society, to improve the situation of migrants and asylum seekers in the country, and to protect juveniles seeking to reach the country.

In concluding remarks, Ion Diaconu, Committee Expert acting as country Rapporteur, said that the key question for France was the ability to adapt to reality behind diversity to ensure respect for human rights.  Human rights and in particular the universality of human rights must be the basis of all responses and the starting point for France was diversity. 

Mr. Wagner, Deputy Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that France was aware that there was a long way to go still and looked forward to receiving precise concluding observations by the Committee.

The delegation of France included representatives of the Ministry of Justice, Inter-ministerial Delegation for accommodation and access to housing, Inter-ministerial Delegation for the Fight Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of National Education, Higher Education and Research, Ministry of Overseas, Ministry for Social Affairs, Ministry for Foreign Affairs and International Development, and the Permanent Mission of France to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The next public meeting of the Committee will take place at 3 p.m. this afternoon when it will begin its review of the combined fourteenth and fifteenth periodic report of Guatemala (CERD/C/GTM/14-15).

Report

The combined twentieth and twenty-first periodic report of France can be read via the following link: CERD/C/FRA/20-21.

Presentation of the Report

THOMAS WAGNER, Deputy Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations Office at Geneva, introducing the report, said that France, like the rest of the world, was facing new challenges in racism and all forms of discrimination.  The President of France had advocated the fight against racism and anti-Semitism as a national cause for 2015, while France had responded to international calls and the calls of the Council of Europe to fight hate crimes and racism.  France had set up in 2012 the National Action Plan against Racism and Anti-Semitism and had put in place an adequate institutional structure for its implementation; the new triennial plan to 2017 had been adopted in 2015.  France had developed an ambitious criminal policy with the objective of fighting racism and racial discrimination, based on key areas.  State prosecutors must provide systematic and adapted responses to all instances of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and discrimination.  The penal policy was based on local provisions to prevent problems and ensure the protection of buildings and other areas, while the protection of religious sites had been reinforced following the events of January 2015.  An Anti-Discrimination Unit had been set up in 2007 to deal with instances of racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination.  Further, France had strengthened its arsenal to deal with racism, and in particular against hate speech on the Internet, and was seeking to develop its criminal framework to deal with hate speech in the press and look at those issues in its general criminal legislation. 

The efficiency of the PHAROS platform charged with detecting acts of racism and xenophobia on the Internet had been strengthened, resulting in a 73 per cent increase in reported cases over the past two years.  The National Plan to Fight Racism and Anti-Semitism aimed to raise awareness and combat prejudice and spread ideas of brotherhood and equality, and was being implemented in schools, while all personnel in the education sector received training in the fight against discrimination.  New teaching on civic and moral values was being developed in order to promote mutual respect and encourage students to take part in action and reflection on human rights.  The fight against social inequality and the promotion of diversity relied on guaranteeing equality of all in the entirety of the national territory, including in the overseas territories.  Concrete measures had been taken to guarantee effective equality and solidarity of those most vulnerable among the population and the reform of the integration policies had been ongoing since 2013, with the objective of providing equal access to health, education, employment and combatting discrimination in all facets of public action.  The policy of educational inclusion favoured inclusion of newly arrived students who did not speak French, and the regular school attendance of Traveller children and the improvement of their education.  France had started specific action to guarantee real action for Travellers and people from illicit camps, including the drafting of a bill on the status and accommodation of Travellers, the adoption in March 2014 of a law to ensure access to housing for them, and the efforts to deal with vulnerable persons living in illicit camps, be they Roma or not.

Questions by the Country Rapporteur

ION DIACONU, Committee Expert acting as Country Rapporteur, noted with satisfaction the existence of significant legislation in France to uphold equality and the existence of significant human rights bodies and sound civil society organizations.  The principle of equality was not always reflected on the ground, which meant that effective measures were needed to implement appropriate remedies.  The country Rapporteur welcomed the process of decentralization in France, which was a feature of democracy, and noted with concern the tension which existed between the central Government and local councils, the disparity between regions and the lack in protection in certain parts of the country.  What measures were being undertaken to ensure that all regions were well informed and received sufficient resources to fulfil the obligations of the State?  Hate speech continued to be widespread in the country, and there were instances of racial violence, noted Mr. Diaconu.  He asked the delegation to comment on the current legislation and the criminalization of acts under article 4 of the Convention, the impact of the national anti-discrimination plan, and measures to address racist declarations by politicians.  Digital public order must be established and defended, and new procedures must be established to deal with the phenomenon of hate speech on the Internet. 

Turning to the situation of Roma and Traveller communities, the country Rapporteur asked about circulation authorisation which had to be renewed every three months, the areas where those communities could settle, and the places in primary and secondary school for their children.  Migrant Roma coming from other European countries suffered massive expulsion without individual examination of cases and without offering alternative solutions, while violence against Roma occurred at the hand of individuals and by police officers.  What measures was France taking to ensure that Roma, the citizens of the European Union who were legally in its territory, were treated with dignity and respect for human rights? 

The Committee was greatly interested in the situation of indigenous peoples in overseas territories, including the violations of the rights of Kanaks in New Caledonia, the denial of access to natural resources to indigenous peoples in French Guyana, and the stripping of a great number of Mahorais in Mayotte of their fundamental rights to health, education, social housing and freedom of movement.  Was France taking efforts to ensure that the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples was being implemented vis-à-vis those people?  Considering that France prohibited discrimination on ethnic origins, Mr. Diaconu inquired about the ways to establish ethnicity for purposes of the application of the Criminal Code.  With regard to racial segregation, the delegation was asked to evaluate the situation in suburbs of some large cities, the composition of populations there and their situation concerning employment, accommodation, and health in comparison with the general situation in France.  What measures were being taken to promote the situation of disadvantaged members of the society, to improve the situation of migrants and asylum seekers in the country, and protect juveniles seeking to reach the country?  In order to achieve real equality, the State must respect, protect and ensure the enjoyment of human rights for all, and France could still make progress in this regard.

Questions by the Committee Experts

A Committee Expert welcomed the intention of France to mobilize the country against racism and anti-Semitism, and in particular the intention to prosecute people for hate crimes, and noted that France would need to somehow address delimitation between the exercise of freedom of expression and hate speech.  France was the number one industrialized country for asylum seekers and yet the funding for refugees had been reduced on account of the economic crisis; also, there were reports of asylum seekers not being treated equally.

Experts asked about the steps envisaged to build an integrated society living in social cohesion, an evaluation of the previous National Plan of Action against racial discrimination and anti-Semitism, and the function of the defender of rights and the inter-ministerial delegate.  Racism in the political discourse was a serious issue, particularly in States approaching elections, as was the case in France.  They inquired about actions planned to mark the International Decade for People of African Descent, the non-recognition of collective rights, the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and whether the implementation of the law prohibiting wearing of religious symbols in schools contributed to segregation in schools.  France did not recognize minorities and considered the Republic as one and indivisible, and this might prove problematic; could France comment on its position concerning minorities, clarify the term Republican pact, and explain the principle of laicité or secularism? 

A Committee Expert asked the delegation to explain how the evaluation of the previous National Action Plan against Racism had been conducted and how the plan itself had been put together.  Another Expert said that living together was a true challenge in the world: France offered a positive model in this regard and welcomed the efforts to address instances of racial discrimination, including through the National Action Plan.  What criteria were used to devise special measures and how could those measures be decided upon in view of the lack of statistics? 

France did not recognize indigenous peoples and treated them differently, said an Expert, which was evidenced by the existence of different laws in overseas territories; more needed to be done in those territories to ensure the living together policy that France aspired to.  There was an impression that freedom of expression enabled hate speech by the politicians, and the absence of a reaction by the authorities seemed to encourage this; shouldn’t hate speech be a crime? 

Replies by the Delegation

The living together policy was at the heart of policy in France, which sought to be a model in human rights and in integration, as it had historically been.  Countering all forms of discrimination was an exceedingly important task in the country, particularly in the current historical context.  The January 2015 attacks were attacks on French values of freedom of expression, and the killing of the police officers and the French Jewish citizens had pushed France to examine how to fight and counter terrorism and racism and to say no to those attacking the living together policy.  The Republican Pact was an expression of determination and the will to see what everyone had in common, despite the differences.  Racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance were unacceptable and France was determined to move forward in a new way and unite around the national priority of combatting racism and anti-Semitism in 2015.  The National Action Plan attempted to look at things in a new way, to include the training of the police and civil servants in discrimination, to pay more attention to the Internet, and to move to a series of tangible steps in the implementation of public policies.  The National Action Plan had received a 100 million Euros budget and had four main parts: galvanizing and mobilizing civil society and communication for civil action; sanctions: racism was not an attitude it was a crime; regulate the Internet, which was not to say to limit freedom of expression on the Internet but to ensure that the Internet was not an area of non-law where hate could prosper; and the education and the transmission of values, which was fundamental and absolutely crucial to make people – particularly the youth – aware, to enable them to understand what was going on, and empower them to recognize hate speech.  The Plan had been drafted in a transversal and cross-cutting manner and with a dose of humility because it called for galvanizing of the society which would take time.

Presentation by the National Human Rights Institution of France

NATIONAL CONSULTATIVE COMMISSION FOR HUMAN RIGHTS, in its address to the Committee said that it was an advisory body to the Government and the Parliament on human rights, completely independent from the political power, and different from the institution of the Defender of Rights.  The Consultative Commission expressed regret that there had been no evaluation of the previous plan which would feed into the National Action Plan against Racism and Anti-Semitism 2015-2017, and that it had not been consulted in the preparation of the Plan.  Ethnic statistics were a current issue in France and the Consultative Commission opposed the collection of data segregated by race or ethnicity because that would be in contravention of the Constitution; however, it was in favour of statistics based on the origin of persons, including the place of birth and nationality of the person or his or her parents.  There was a need to adapt public policy in this area, ensure adequate data collection, and promote discrimination indicators in access to employment, housing, goods and services.  Concerning hate speech online, the Consultative Commission considered that the legal arsenal in place needed to be reinforced and was concerned about the recent changes in the criminal code concerning terrorism.  Crimes and opinions should not be confused, said the Commission, adding that crimes of opinion and other crimes should not be confused either.  France needed to make the procedural framework of the law on the press more effective, and should give judges the authority to suspend or even close down a website which incited to racial hatred.

Replies by the Delegation

Responding to the questions and comments made by the Committee Experts, the delegation of France said that it had noted the criticism concerning a number of issues, including the situation of indigenous peoples, Travellers, Roma, and migrants.  France reiterated its firm commitment to appreciate diversity and reflect it in its public policy and so strengthen unity, which was not same as uniformity.  France had a decentralized system of governance with over 26,000 communes which were the first port of call for citizens from birth to death.  Overseas territories had a number of different statuses, which allowed France to adapt public policies to specific cases; while there was no recognition of specific peoples, the recognition of overseas territories and their peoples did exist.  Customary law governed more than 70 per cent of the overseas territories, but there was a great deal of dialogue between the territories and the Government, and a number of public policies were in place to promote regional languages and culture. 

The process of obtaining the citizenship was long and complex, but ways were being devised to speed it up.  The recognition of minorities was banned by the Constitution, but there was a framework which allowed the collection of data on the basis of origin.  The delegation said France recognized the need to improve knowledge about minorities and improve public policies that affected them.  The President of the Republic raised the issue of ghettos in one of his recent statements; urban policies focused on improving neighbourhoods and using geographical criteria and 1,300 had been identified which would benefit from the two billion Euros budget to support citizenship, parenthood and health prevention policies.  Policies were in place to foster asylum seekers reception and integration, which was not only a French but a European problem; France called on Europe to develop an integrated and collective approach to this humanitarian drama that was unfolding.

The National Action Plan against Racism and Anti-Semitism 2015-2017 was more ambitious than the previous one; it included a mid-term stock-taking exercise and called for more robust assessment instruments.  The Defender of Rights was an Ombudsmen, a mediator, which could ask public authorities to render accounts and was not responsible to the State.

The Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code dealt with the crimes of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance, and were in line with the Convention.  Racial hatred and xenophobia were aggravating circumstances which ensured stiffer sentences, while judges and prosecutors had a discretionary power to include racial motivation to crimes, if that had not been done by the police.  Since 1972, France had legislation in the area of hate speech, notably in Article 24 of the updated 1881 Press Act, which provided sanctions for any act motivated by belonging to religion of race.  The provisions regulating defending terrorism were included in the Criminal Act, because offences in the Press Act were specific, could be prosecuted only within three years of committing the act and this law did not extend to legal entities.  The Press Act in Article 24 covered all incitement to hatred, and there was a bill which allowed the prosecution of denial of all crimes against humanity, and crimes of genocide, provided they were recognized by the Parliament.  The Criminal Code listed 20 criteria where discrimination could not occur, including in access to employment, on the basis of place of residence or place of origin, and others. 

France was very vigilant and aware of the problem of public hate speech by media personalities or by politicians, and undertook investigations into all such cases, as well as informing the public about the prosecutions and the sentences handed down, including criminal sanctions.  Some of the cases included mayors, members of the Parliament, members of the European Parliament, members of the political parties, and journalists, for offences including denial of the Holocaust and crimes against humanity, anti-Semitism, derogatory comments about Muslims, and others.

Roma illicit encampments had been abolished since 2010 and measures were being taken to assist poor migrant populations from those settlements, regardless of their citizenship.  Discrimination acts and comments against this population were dealt with in the same way as other acts of discrimination.  The population of the illicit camps numbered some 15,000 to 20,000 persons, most of them from Romania or Bulgaria.  In terms of the eviction from encampments, it was important to say that the Government was not targeting a specific population, but rather encampments themselves regardless of the origin or cultural backgrounds living there.  Evictions were taking place with the order of the judge, or if encampments posed an immediate risk to the population living there or around it.  The decision to dismantle illegal encampment could be contested before the administrative judge, the Defender of Rights, or even the European Court of Human Rights.  It carried the responsibility of the State to provide emergency accommodation, access to health and education for the residents.  Deportation of residents of such encampments, who were mainly Romanian or Bulgarian citizens, were considered on a case by case basis; this decision too could be contested before the administrative judge and the State had an obligation to provide support for voluntary return.

Concerning the situation of Travellers, the delegation said that the Law of 1969 provided that those without fixed domicile had the right to freedom of movement as long as they had some form of trailer or caravan and had a valid driving and circulation licence.  Travellers needed to declare their link to a commune in order to be put on an electoral list. 

Responding to the questions and concerns raised by the Experts about the situation of indigenous peoples and people living in overseas territories, the delegation noted that today there were 12 overseas collectivises with different statuses, which reflected and conformed to the aspirations of their populations.  New Caledonia was currently in a transitional phase and its citizens would be able to take part in a referendum on national sovereignty.  Land access was a very important issue for indigenous peoples and several land reforms had been undertaken since the 1970s, with ancestral land being handed over to the Kanaks.  Customary authorities took part in the governance of New Caledonia.  In French Guyana, the Government had established in 2007 an ad hoc structure in order to better adapt it to the needs of the local population.  Educational needs in the territory were considerable.  The State was the owner of the land, but was aware of the importance that Amerindians attached to the land and the importance of hunting and fishing in their culture. 

The Asylum Reform Act had been the subject of a deep seated debate which involved non-governmental organizations.  The Act improved asylum and appeals procedures, prohibited expulsion before the decision by the Asylum Commission, and introduced the right of asylum seekers to receive aid by the State.  The law addressed the situation of asylum seeking children in reception centres, and protected girls from female genital mutilation.  In 2014, a total of 64,000 asylum requests had been registered in France, and 24 per cent had been approved.  With regard to the situation of unaccompanied minors in Mayotte, the local office of the immigration department had been established in 2014, the year in which more than 5,000 minors had been deported by the police and taken to the border. 

France supported the text of the United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous People and stressed that collective rights could not prevail over individual rights.  France was unable to ratify International Labour Organization Convention 169 because of the principle of equality of rights of people in the Constitution and it could not assign specific rights to specific groups.

The 2004 law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools reflected two concerns, namely to limit the increasing tension in certain schools and to protect young people from being singled out for wearing specific religious symbols.  The law prohibited visible wearing of religious symbols, but it did not provide a list of symbols that were banned.  There was no massive shift from state to private education following the adoption of this law, but recently more private Muslim schools were being opened, which was not necessarily linked to the 2004 law, but was in response to requests by families.

In a series of follow-up questions, Committee Experts asked the delegation about consultations with indigenous peoples and their access to ancestral lands, the evaluation of the previous National Action Plan against Racism and Anti-Semitism, the role of the Defender of Rights, the difference in the application of article 25 of the Civil Code on the loss of citizenship by naturalized citizens, and the plans to deal with the Mediterranean migrant crisis beyond calling for international action.

Responding, the delegation noted that the Defender of Rights publicly issued his report each year, which included the statistics on requests received and the action taken.  The number of discrimination cases brought before the Defender had increased by 25 per cent between 2013 and 2014, and 25 per cent of those related to discrimination on the basis of origin.  The question of evaluation of the impact of the National Plan had been raised by the authorities, but the indicators of the success had not been in place; still it was important to say that France had in place an independent model of assessment of public functions.  The revocation of nationality under the Civil Code could happen in cases of a person committing a terrorist act prior or immediately upon obtaining citizenship.  The response to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean could not be French only; it was an European problem which must also see the involvement of the country of origin.

Questions by the Committee Experts

ION DIACONU, Committee Expert acting as Country Rapporteur, said that no policy of equality of rights could justify the refusal of collective rights to indigenous peoples. The Ministry of Justice must clearly review article 4 of the Convention and find the best way to respond to criminalization of hate crimes and to consider if the reservations of France to this article were appropriate.

The delegation was asked to provide further explanations concerning the actions of France in response to the crisis of migration in the Mediterranean, and about racism in sports. 

Responses by the Delegation

The crisis in the Mediterranean was a major issue affecting European policy and the recent summit on the issue highlighted that there could not be only one response to the problem.  The naval monitoring of the seas would be reinforced and the repressive measures against criminal groups involved in trafficking and people smuggling would also be reinforced.  France stressed once again the importance of involving in the response countries of origin and countries of transit.

Hate crimes should be punished proportionally, regardless of who the author was; hate crimes by public officials were unacceptable and should be sanctioned politically and legally.  France wished to enlarge the range of responses, and in addition to repressive measures considered it important to apply citizenship training and work on people conscience.  Sanctions for incitement to discrimination could be criminal and pedagogical, especially for elected officials who were on trial.

In their follow-up questions and comments, Committee Experts asked what would happen if New Caledonia opted for independence, stressed that the fight against terrorism must respect human rights, and asked whether the preference for origin rather than colour or ethnicity had been effective in understanding the mechanisms of racial discrimination.  An Expert was concerned that insufficient information was provided on the National Action Plan against Racism and Anti-Semitism, including tangible actions, indicators and resources.  Explicit discrimination experienced by Muslims was also an issue of concern.

The National Plan had a 100 million Euros budget over three years, and 75 per cent would be funded and spent at the local level.  The Plan focused on the local level because that was where racism and discrimination occurred and it was hoped that collectivises and mayors would be closely involved in the implementation of the Plan.  The place of Muslims in the French society was one of the most complex issues today, and the number of anti-Muslim acts had been on the sharp increase following the January 2015 attacks.  It was important not to spark controversy and to hold a calm debate on racism and discrimination in all their forms, and the place of public policies in the fight against racism and discrimination.  There was a need to maintain a special focus on anti-Semitism, because Jews were still being killed in France for being Jews.  On the role of mayors, who were heads of municipal councils and also, as holders of public office, they were agents of the State; it was essential to ensure that they acted in accordance with the law of the Republic.

Concluding Remarks

ION DIACONU, Committee Expert acting as a Country Rapporteur, thanked the delegation for the replies provided and said that the key question for France was the ability to adapt to reality behind diversity to ensure respect for human rights.  Human rights had changed so much over the last 50 years and today it was difficult to put national concerns before the respect of human rights.  The universality of human rights must be the basis of all responses and the starting point for France was diversity. 

THOMAS WAGNER, Deputy Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that France saw itself as an advocate for human rights nationally and internationally.  All States should take a look at themselves and their own conscience and listen to what the Committee had to say.  France was aware that there was a long way to go still and looked forward to receiving precise concluding observations.

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