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State of the World's Minorities 2008 - France

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - France, 11 March 2008, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In May 2007, France elected Nicolas Sarkozy as its new president. He faces distrust among many French Muslims for incendiary comments he made as Interior Minister about youth rioters in 2005 and 2006. At his inauguration, Sarkozy pledged to make human rights a priority, but a petition launched by French intellectuals in June 2007 lambasted his powerful new Ministry of Immigration and National Identity as a sop to the far right.

The centralized nature of the French state, and its emphasis on a unified identity, has long made action on minority issues difficult. The country is only one of four of the 47 members of the Council of Europe not to have signed its Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) and neither has it ratified the Charter on Minority and Regional Languages. On constitutional grounds, France has declared a complete reservation to the article on the rights of minorities in the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights, claiming in effect that there are no minorities in France.

In short, French policies continue to reflect an assumption that minorities should assimilate into the majority culture. On a visit to France in September 2007, UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues Gay McDougall observed:

'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 colour of their skins, hide the manifestations of their religion or the traditions of their ancestors, only then will they be accepted as truly French.'

France's sizeable – mostly North African – Muslim community, estimated at 6 per cent of the population, felt the brunt of new policies instituted in the wake of the 11 September attacks on the United States, including police searches, in some circumstances without a warrant. Already widely ghettoized on the margins of large cities, these Muslim immigrant communities felt deepening marginalization amid rising popular Islamophobia fed by politicians and the media. Arab and other underclass immigrant youth riots erupted in November 2005, and in 2007 tensions continued to simmer.

Amid rising popular fear of Islam, in 2004 the French government banned the wearing of overt religious items in public schools. While the law has disproportionately targeted Muslim girls wearing head-scarves, it also applies to such items as the Jewish skullcap, heavy Christian crosses and the Sikh turban. In 2005, French courts upheld the expulsion from school of several Sikh boys who refused to remove their turbans for religious reasons. In June 2007 a Sikh organization lodged a challenge at the European Court of Human Rights following a French court ruling that, ostensibly for security reasons, requires Sikh men to be photographed without their turbans to obtain a driver's licence. The Sikh organization representing a man denied a driver's licence when he refused to remove his turban argued that the French law undermines freedom of thought, conscience and religion. MRG is providing legal advice in the case and helping to publicize the implications of the ban.

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