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Taking on racism and hate speech in France

French authorities have rolled out their first campaigns to fight racism and anti-Semitism that offer hard-hitting messages against hate speech and workplace discrimination. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.

The only time Dieynaba Thioune usually wears a Muslim headscarf is during Friday prayers back in her home city of Dakar, Senegal. But on a recent sunny day in Paris, she donned one to make a point.

"It feels very strange," said 19-year-old Thioune, who joined a 'hijab day' rally at France's elite Sciences Po University. "I have friends who wear the hijab here, and they sometimes get verbally attacked."

A few miles north across the city limit, outside a state employment office, 29-year-old Yacouba Cisse describes the challenges of finding work as a restaurant cook. "When they see the color of my skin, they ask if I want to wash dishes," said Cisse, who is also from Senegal.

Those are sentiments France's leftist government wants to change, under a massive, 100-million-euro ($113 million) bid to fight racism and discrimination, first announced a year ago. In recent weeks, authorities have rolled out their first major communications campaigns: a pair of hard-hitting messages against hate speech and discrimination in hiring practices.

Dieynaba Thioune normally only wears a hijab at home during friday prayers (photo: DW/E. Bryant)

Thioune (center) joined a rally where she put on a hijab she normally only wears during prayer time back home

"We cannot just sit and watch rising populism, extremism and radicalism in all its forms, to have this threat in the middle of our Republic," said Gilles Clavreul, head of DILCRA, a ministerial body overseeing the fight against racism and anti-Semitism.

The three-year government plan includes an arsenal of proposals, from deepening sanctions and the Internet fight against

hate speech,

to launching school and citizen education programs.

Effort draws mixed reviews

France is hardly the only European country grappling with prejudice. Far-right groups are gaining ground across Europe, feeding on the immigration crisis and rising fears of militant Islam.

Still, in March, the Council of Europe warned that hate speech in France has "become commonplace."

In interviews with roughly a dozen anti-discrimination activists, experts and ordinary people, many applaud the campaign's overall intent, but give the communications campaigns mixed reviews. Some even suggested French authorities are part of the problem, pointing to the fractured political

response to the Muslim veil

as a leading example.

Most observers, however, agree on one thing: it will take much more than a three-year crusade to bring about a more tolerant and egalitarian society.

"There's a real political will, but it will take 20 years to achieve success," said Christine Lazerges of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH), a government advisory body. Major changes were needed in the country's educational system and in turning around France's disenfranchised suburbs, she added.

Government statistics also attest to a long road ahead. In 2015, hate offences overall jumped by more than one-fifth compared to the year before to more than 2,000. Anti-Muslim acts and threats alone tripled last year, while anti-Semitic ones remained high. Activists say the true figures are higher, since many acts go unrecorded.

Despite an overall hike in hate acts in 2015, Clavreul cites signs of progress. New figures in May show a sharp drop in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts since a year ago.

A study by the CNCDH found an increase in perceived French tolerance - a surprising fallout from a year bracketed by two

Islamist terrorist attacks

in Paris.

"There is a need for fraternity and social cohesion that is making people open up to those who are different," the commission's president Lazerges said.

A veiled woman (photo: EPA/EVERT-JAN DANIELS +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk)

Some suggest French authorities are part of the problem and point to the fractured political response to the Muslim veil

But other forms of discrimination are more subtle. A survey on French hiring by Paris think-tank Institut Montaigne found Christian men are four times more likely to get a callback from recruiters than Muslim ones - a discrepancy that actually increases among the more qualified. Jews also face discrimination, but to a lesser extent.

"It's a very serious phenomenon," said Montaigne's deputy director Angele Malatre-Lansac, pointing to study estimates that discrimination against Muslims in France was far higher than against African-Americans in the United States.

In many cases, she says, employers are fearful of flouting the country's staunchly secular laws, and are uncertain how to treat expressions of religiosity at work, like Muslim prayers. "It's not necessarily that racism is pervasive, but religious practice can make recruiters afraid," she said.

'Real life' hate acts

The French government has gone on the offensive. In March, it launched six 30-second TV spots re-enacting 'real life' racist and anti-Semitic acts: distraught Muslims finding a pig's head stuck to the mosque gate; a black man getting beaten up; 'death to Jews' scrawled on a synagogue door.

"We had to create a shock, to say 'Hey, stop, we have to address these issues,'" said Clavreul of DILCRA, describing the publicity as a first, but crucial step.

Still, some anti-discrimination groups criticize the spots for offering a narrow, overly violent take on discrimination. "It can be even counterproductive, because we've worked for years to show that racism is subtle, and even those who are not racist can have humiliating, wounding words," Lazerges of the rights body said.

Others want results.

"Publicity spots are good, they can help educate people," said Abdallah Zekri, head of the Observatory Against Islamophobia. "But how many people were arrested, how many people were found guilty?"

Officials argue all hate acts will be pursued and punished, and the campaign's sweep is both broad and local.

The government has taken a different tack with its second campaign, rolled out in mid-April. Giant posters portray job seekers with their faces split in half - white and non-white - with the tagline "Skills First." Next to the white side are messages like, "You start Monday." On the non-white: "You don't have the right profile."

Authorities also say they will test companies on their hiring practices, with plans to 'name and shame.'

Some have said they find the posters unsettling rather than helpful.

What about veiled women?

The state's tough stance toward the Muslim headscarf also raises questions over whether its anti-discrimination drive will fairly defend veiled women, who are considered leading targets of anti-Muslim acts.

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Controversial remarks by top politicians - Women's Rights Minister Laurence Rossignol recently compared veiled women to "negroes" supporting slavery - have fuelled those doubts.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls also takes a hard view, describing the veil as a sign of "enslavement" and criticizing the Science Po's recent hijab day, organized to protest Rossignol's remarks.

"The number one culprit of Islamophobia in France is the state itself," said Yasser Louati, spokesman for the Collective Against Islamophobia. "If there's work to be done, it has to be done at the grassroots level."

Sciences Po student Thioune is also skeptical. "I thought France was open-minded," she said, "but not when it comes to the hijab."

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