The recent local elections in France witnessed not only increased pressure from the extreme right National Front (FN), but also division within the conservative party in power, the UMP, which fluctuated uncertainly between an alliance with the FN and one with the opposition parties. As for the left, it can hardly be seen as a credible alternative. The situation for minorities in France has therefore become more than difficult. It has become critical.
Nicolas Sarkozy has failed to keep the promises he made on diversity in 2007. We are witnessing today an incredible backtracking without precedent on the rights of minority groups – they have been the subject of attacks at the highest levels of government. See how former interior minister Brice Hortefeux retained his ministerial post after his conviction in the lower courts for “race-based abuse”. Or his successor, Claude Guéant, Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-hand man at the Elysée Palace, who declared that French people “no longer feel at home” because of immigration, and labels the military intervention in Libya a “crusade”. There is nothing innocuous about the use of this word at a time when the UMP is in serious debate over the place of Islam in France.
A “clash of civilisations” theme seems to have indeed replaced the “diversity” theme – for Sarkozy’s presidential campaign in 2012. All that will appear to have survived for visible minorities in France and the high hopes raised during the president’s election campaign in 2007 are symbolic appointments such as those of Rachida Dati as minister of justice, Fadela Amara at the local government ministry and Rama Yade as secretary of state for human rights. Those appointments have been quickly reshuffled, slashed by a cabinet suffering from chronic instability.
Another cause of anxiety for minorities is the dismantling of Halde, the commission for the struggle against discrimination and for equality. After seeing its budget shattered by the majority parties in power it is, we are informed, to be assigned “in the next few weeks” to the scrapheap, remodelled to be operated under the vague function of “defending rights”. Halde dealt with more than 10,000 complaints a year, investigating discrimination, and its remit was bound to increase. But the government chose to reduce its budget, which will ultimately lead to its demise.
The “observatoire national du racisme”, the national council to monitor racism, authorised by Hortefeux, is today in the hands of Guéant, but no date has as yet been suggested for its inception. You can bet it will remain a dead letter, there being no political will to revive it.
The number of French Arabs originating from North Africa in France is estimated at about 6 million, and the number of black people is estimated at about 5 million, out of a total French population of 65 million. France, however, still refuses to respond to these statistics, which illustrate the extent of diversity in the country. Acceptance of these numbers is the only means by which the full extent of discrimination against minorities can be revealed, and in particular the instances of indirect discrimination, which is more widespread and more serious. Millions of French people are waiting for the republic of France to grant them equal rights in practice, although it is committed in theory. They are simply demanding that they have access to employment, promotion, accommodation and leisure at an equal level with their white fellow citizens.
According to independent research associations, visible minorities represent more than 15% of the population of France. Yet only 0.2% of deputies and about 1% of senators elected in metropolitan France are from a minority background. There is no French black person at the head of any large government ministry, and no French black person occupying the position of an ambassador, director of a CAC 40 corporation or senior staff officer in the armed forces.
The government’s unwillingness to face reality plays into the hands of the extreme right. Minorities in France demand equality – they want to be part of the republic of France. The idea of equality must be opened up again to public scrutiny; it is at the very heart of the republican pact we have made.
If political parties do not respond to this call, then civil society must organise. It will be up to us to bring this message directly to the attention of voters in 2012, to prevent another missed opportunity for minorities.
Patrick Lozès, president and founder member of Cran (Council Representing the Associations of the Black People of France). He is author of: We, the Black People of France.