France’s tolerance problem

Sometimes, I have to pinch myself and rub my eyes to believe what I’m reading.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi are calling for the Schengen treaty – which regulates open borders and the free movement of people in Europe – to be revised. This comes after a diplomatic spat over the fate of immigrants from Tunisia who escaped the unrest earlier in the year, and who wound up in Italy. Italy provided them with temporary visas, which, effectively allowed the immigrants to travel and move freely around the EU.

That’s in theory, at least.

France actually blocked a train coming from Italy from crossing the border, citing reasons of “potential unrest”. The Tunisian migrants claimed that they were seeking to reunite with family members living in France, and have been barred from entering the country, in spite of their legal status. Italy and France wrote a joint letter to the senior EU leaderhip:

“The situation concerning migration in the Mediterranean could rapidly transform into a crisis that would undermine the trust that our compatriots have in the [principle] of freedom of travel within Schengen,” the letter says […] It is necessary to “examine the possibility to temporarily re-establish controls within [Schengen] borders in the case of exceptional difficulties.”

I find this infuriating. On the one hand Italy and France are actively engaged in supporting liberation forces in Libya, and have made grandiloquent statements about the need for people to enjoy freedom and the necessity for reform to take place in undemocratic countries. The ongoing unrest across North Africa has created massive human displacement and forced people to leave their homes, their countries. Once these people reach European shores, though, the story is different. All of a sudden, they are the scourge of the Earth and no country wants to take them in. How’s that for a double standard?


Ever since I moved to Canada from Paris a few years ago, I often get quizzical looks and questions like: “why would you leave such a beautiful/romantic/interesting city??” It’s always a bit difficult to answer this without sounding like a jerk. There were a number of factors that influenced my decision: first of all, having grown up and lived in Paris most of my life, I felt the urge to move some place new. I felt the old adage “the grass is greener” take hold of me, particularly once I had finished my masters degree. There simply aren’t many job opportunities, broadly speaking, in the field of international relations (whether it be working for an NGO, an international organization or other). But beyond these basic reasons, I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with France’s treatment of minorities.

In 2005, I was in grad school at Sciences Po when there were serious youth riots, and Paris was “burning.” These riots were the result of profound, chronic, protracted discontent among minority youth. In spite of the fact that people from all over the world – and in particular former French colonies – have been immigrating to France for decades, instead of seeing growing openness, the French are increasingly less tolerant. Perhaps there are polls and studies that show otherwise, but, I’m telling you, the trend is not a positive one. The discourse is becoming more and more openly hostile toward immigrant populations, in particular with regards to France’s Muslim minority.

The recent ban on the burqa is one example. That law was passed with 335 votes in favor, and one against (that’s right – just one, lone parliamentarian.) I understand their justification for the ban: that the burqa is a symbol of the subjugation of women, and that it is a direct contradiction of French republican, secular values. But I profoundly disagree with it, both because it’s an assault on individual freedom (to dress as you please), but mostly because it’s such a blatant “f*ck you” to French Muslims. The ban affects only about 2,000 women in France, and I’m sure there are other issues which insult our “republican” values more than the burqa: the growing problem of homelessness and unequal access to safe housing, youth unemployment, the lack of care for our elderly. These are genuine social issues that require attention. Instead, though, the government does things like ban the burqa, target a specific ethnic group for deportation (that was the Roma – or gypsies – last summer), creates some absurd entity called the “Ministry for Immigration, Integration and National Identity” (created by Sarkozy in 2007 – the “national identity” part of it was removed in 2010). The government policy on immigration is firmly focused on deporting as many “illegal” immigrants as possible: the Ministry of Immigration proudly touts its figures of tens of thousands of deportations every year.

Outside of the government though, in the media and among the general population, there is a latent discomfort with the way in which French society is evolving. Nearly 10% of the country’s population is Muslim, and demographics suggest that this number will continue to increase as Muslim families tend to have more children. This is actually true in many countries around Europe. The growth of visible minorities in France has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in discomfort and intolerance. In contrast with the American inner city/suburb dichotomy, France has a reverse culture: city centers are typically rich, and suburbs not. When waves of immigrant workers arrived in France in the 1960s, they were essentially parked in shoddy apartment complexes on the outskirts of the city, with little to no thought given to urban planning and social services. Over the years, these suburbs were left to degenerate and now house a large population of disenfranchised, marginalized individuals who live on the physical and social outskirts of society. If you’ve ever driven from Paris’ main airport, CDG, into the city, you know what I’m talking about.

It’s a terrible, sad situation, and it’s deeply entrenched. French elites have historically been very hermetic, but the lack of political representation of minorities is blatant. Token efforts to have more inclusive governance and leadership are failing. The extreme right, which has been a political force to reckon with in France for a long time, is experiencing a sort of “renaissance.” Marine Le Pen, the new leader of the Front National, recently compared public Muslim prayer to a form of occupation. The word “occupation” is an extremely loaded term in France – it is a reference to German occupation during the Second World War. There is a good chance that her party will win enough votes in the presidential election next year for her to be a second round contender (same thing happened in 2002, and Chirac was re-elected with 80% of the vote…) Xenophobia and racism have taken a strong hold on French society. It is no surprise that this completely disenfranchised segment of the population is angry and resentful, and it is no surprise that events like the 2005 riots take place.

It’s disheartening and depressing to live in a country where the discourse on immigration and minorities is so negative. Institutional discrimination and injustice have become a part of life in France. It’s so bad that, for a while, we almost had a system whereby people’s resumes would be submitted to potential employers anonymously. The reason? So that the potential employer wouldn’t throw a resume in the trash bin because someone’s name was Mohamed or Fatima. Such a band-aid solution: instead of actually trying to deal with discrimination, let’s all agree that we can’t go past our prejudices and make it harder for us to discriminate.

There is an urgent need to create a real space – political, social, physical – for greater understanding between cultures. French people whose parents are not from a foreign country need to accept that societies evolve, and that it is pointless to seek to insulate France from migration. It’s simply a fact of life, it will not go away, no matter how tough our laws are or how hard we make it for people to assimilate. And, perhaps this will be most difficult, we need to recognize the true value of immigration, and emphasize the (proven) benefits for the host as well as the sending country.

France is a wonderful country. There are so many reasons why I love my country, but I just cannot see myself living in a place with such a degree of growing hatred and intolerance. We are moving backwards. I realize that other countries are not perfect, and there are intolerant people everywhere. But I’ve seen France deteriorate on that particular front, and I find it heartbreaking.

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