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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - France : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date August 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - France : Overview, August 2011, available at: [accessed 4 October 2015]
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.

Updated August 2011


France is primarily a mainland territory in western Europe, which borders Belgium and Luxembourg in the north, Germany, Switzerland and Italy in the east, the Mediterranean Sea in the south, Spain in the south west, the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the English Channel in the north-west. The island of Corsica in the Mediterranean is one of France's 22 metropolitan regions. The islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean and French Guyana in South America, and Réunion in the Indian Ocean are overseas regions of France. The archipelagos of St Pierre et Michelon near Canada, Wallis and Futuna Islands in the Pacific and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean are French territorial collectivities. There are two Pacific island groups, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, which have the status of French 'overseas countries' granting them the highest degree of local autonomy within the French context. New Caledonia will hold a referendum in 2014 on whether to stay part of France or become independent.


Main languages: French, Breton, Corsican, Catalan, Basque, German, Occitan, Flemish, Arabic, Berber

Main religions: Roman Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, Judaism

Minority groups include Occitan-speakers 3-6 million, Alsatians 1.4 million, Bretons 270,000, Portuguese 850,000, Algerians 1.55 million, Moroccans 1 million, Jews 600,000, Tunisians 350,000, Roma/Gypsies 700-800,000 (1), Italians 380,000, Asians 227,000, Spanish 350,000, Tunisians 350,000, Catalans 126,000-200,000, Turks 198,000, Corsicans 182,000, Basques 70,000, Flemings 60,000, former Yugoslavs 52,000, Germans 51,000, Poles 190,000 and Luxembourgers 30,000-40,000. Other minorities, including sub-Saharan Africans, are estimated at 200,000. (2)

The French Ministry of Culture and Communication recognizes 14 distinct minority languages and two minority language groups in metropolitan France, and 47 minority languages in the French overseas territories. The 14 distinct languages are: Western Flemish (extreme north-west), Alsatian, Francique (north-east), Franco-Provençal (south central), Corsican (Corsica), Catalan (south), Basque (south-west) and Breton (north-west), Maghrebi Arabic, Western Armenian, Berber, Romani, Judeo-Spanish and Yiddish. There are 10 recognized Oïl languages: Picard, Norman, Gallo (north-west), Walloon, Champenois (north), Poitevin, Saintongeais, Burgundian (north central), Franc-Comtois, Lorrain (north-east). There are six recognized Oc languages: Limousin, Auvergnat (south central), Vivaro-Alpin, Provençal (south-east), Languedocian (south) and Gascon (south-west). In addition there are four variants of French Creole in the French regions of Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana and Réunion; four variants of Anglo-Portuguese Creole and six Amer-Indian languages in French Guyana; 28 Melanesian languages in New Caledonia; seven Polynesian languages in French Polynesia; two Malayo-Polynesian languages in Wallis and Futuna; and two Bantu languages in Mayotte.


From the end of the eleventh century France became progressively more united as a state and power was more centralized. French became the language of public administration in 1539, replacing Latin. Other Romance languages, dialects of French, and separate languages such as Breton, Basque, Flemish and German were widely spoken in their respective areas. The 1789 French Revolution had a strongly centralizing effect: provincial traditions were eroded, and local languages and cultures were banned. The French language was promoted as a means of inculcating nation-state consciousness. Universal education was introduced in 1793 with standard French as the language of instruction. Centralization was intensified under Napoleon and continued after his defeat in 1815 and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. The building of the railways and expansion of the canal networks in the later nineteenth century helped hasten the decline of regional languages.

French minority languages continued to be used, especially in oral communication between ordinary people. In the late nineteenth century there was a flourishing of literature in some languages, for example Breton and Occitan, which transformed them into languages of the intellectual elite, while their use in everyday life declined.

France acquired colonies in the Caribbean, North America and Africa in the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth century, exotic foods were imported from a number of different countries, including Africa, India and North America. State sponsorship of industries, particularly the manufacture of luxury goods, began under King Louis XIV in the seventeenth century. Quality standards were set. In the eighteenth century the French economy grew rapidly from mining, metal industries, textiles and trade. Nantes was the main port, and the centre of the French slave trade. Paris became the main commercial centre in the late eighteenth century. Poor harvests in the 1770s and 1780s led to mass poverty and the 1789 Revolution. Political turmoil and war in the next 25 years directed industrialization towards armaments, munitions and processed foods. There was further colonial expansion in Africa, Asia and the Pacific in the nineteenth century and in the Middle East in the twentieth century.

The loss of Alsace and the German-speaking part of Lorraine to Germany in 1871 was a major blow to national pride and prompted the determination to win back these regions. This helped fuel an arms race with Germany and Austria, led to alliance with Britain and ultimately led to the First World War. The return of Alsace and Lorraine to France at the end of the war, and the crippling war reparations demanded of Germany by the Peace of Versailles in 1919, fuelled German determination to regain this territory, which it did in the Second World War when it occupied much of France and the Vichy government kept the rest of France independent only by complying with the Nazi occupiers. Bitter reprisals were taken against collaborators after the Germans were defeated.

French industrial expansion in the nineteenth century, the war effort for the two world wars, and labour shortages after both those wars resulted in mass immigration, especially from North Africa but also from the Caribbean and sub-Saharan African colonies. Immigrants also came from other European countries, notably Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia and Poland. Although most workers initially stayed only a short time, to be replaced with others, some formed permanent and growing communities. Colonial subjects had the right to French nationality, although Algerians had to renounce Islam and convert to Christianity in order to obtain citizenship, and most did not. The liberation of France's African colonies in the late 1950s to 1962 and France's membership of the European Economic Community led to reduced rights for former colonial subjects from Africa. Many came to France illegally. The conflict which resulted in independence for Algeria in 1962 was particularly bitter and has left a legacy of mutual antagonism between the French and Algerian immigrant communities. Some Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Pacific and North Atlantic colonies have remained part of France.

France had the largest population in Europe, apart from Russia, until the 1789 Revolution. From then until 1999, the birth rate was low and population increase was mostly on account of immigration. From 2000 the birth rate increased significantly. Immigration continued at a slower pace on account of restrictive laws.


The French revolutionary government adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789, which recognizes the equality of all before the law. This has provided the basis for civil rights in all subsequent French constitutions, the latest dating from 1958. There have been several amendments to the current constitution. In 2003 the French overseas regions and territories were reorganized. The constitution recognizes freedom of religion.

Minority languages

France is one of the most centralized of European states. Education, the law and public administration are all conducted in standard French. Minority languages are taught in school, but mostly as an optional extra subject. Bilingual education was introduced in the 1990s in Alsace and Lorraine, in Brittany and Corsica, initiated by private associations, taken up by regional governments and then supported by central government. The 1951 Deixonne Act, 1975 Haby Act, 1994 Toublon Act, 1995 regulations on regional languages, and the 2002 regulations on bilingual education provide the basis for the teaching of regional languages. The 2001 law creating a Conseil académique des langues régionales was put into effect through the establishment of 19 Academies of regional languages at universities in the regions concerned, one each for Basque, Catalan, Corsu, Alsatian and Platt; two for Breton; four for Creole; and eight for Occitan. In December 2006, the French National Assembly rejected an amendment for the constitutional recognition of regional languages. Article 2 of the constitution, which states that 'the language of the Republic is French' (and which was only introduced in 1992 prior to the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty) has constituted an obstacle to the ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (signed in 1999). The Constitutional Court found that some of the articles of the Charter would give specific rights to minority/regional language speakers, and were therefore not compatible with the French Constitution.

Religious diversity

The 1905 law disestablishing the Roman Catholic Church as the state religion of France bans discrimination on the grounds of religion. It also allows the state to provide funding and tax relief for approved religious organizations. In order to benefit from this, religions must have a single representative body. Central or local governments own and maintain religious buildings constructed before the 1905 law separating religion and state. The government partially funded the establishment of the country's oldest Islamic house of worship, the Paris Grand Mosque, in 1926. In Alsace and Moselle, special laws allow the local governments to provide support for the building of religious edifices, and the followers of the Jewish, Lutheran, Reformed and Roman Catholic faiths can opt to allocate part of their income tax to their religious organization. A 2001 law allows for the closure of religious cults under certain circumstances.

The 2000 Besson law obliges local authorities to set up stopping places for Roma and travelling people. The law was renewed in 2004. This law is the basis for access of the community to social, health and education services. It was followed by a strengthening of penalties for the unlawful occupation of non-designated land by the travelling community.

Citizenship and France's new immigrants

France grants the automatic right to French citizenship to all children born in France, but the right is conditional for the children of foreign nationals, who must be living in France when they apply for citizenship at age 18 and have lived in France for at least five years after age 11. There is a special identity card for these children until they reach adulthood, which allows them to travel in some other European countries. Foreign nationals can apply for citizenship if they have been living in France for five years, or for two years if they have successfully completed two years of higher education in France, or immediately if they have the right special skills to offer.

The French government actively recruited immigrants until 1974 on account of labour shortages. Immigrants were meant to be temporary guest workers, returning home and being replaced by others. But the right to French nationality granted to citizens of the colonies made it difficult for the authorities to send them home. The National Office of Immigration was set up in 1946 to organize immigration, but employers continued to recruit undocumented immigrants for lower salaries. By the 1960s over three-quarters of immigrants were 'clandestins'. From 1974 some illegal immigrants were deported. In January 1994 the Central Directorate for Immigration Control was set up to control immigration and the employment of immigrants.

Assimilation policy for legal immigrants largely failed in the 1960s and 1970s and the government adopted a policy of integration from the mid-1980s, supporting minority community cultural organizations. From 2003 policy reverted to assimilation with new immigrants required to attend courses on French language and culture in order to qualify for residence permits. Government funding switched from minority cultural associations to the assimilation courses.

The 1881 law on the press freedom prohibits libel and slander and defamatory speech and writing against a group of people. The 1972 Pleven law extended this ban to racist speech and writing against individuals, and created the offences of incitement to hatred or racial violence and of discrimination. The 1990 Gayssot law bans Holocaust denial. From 2001 the Labour Code bans direct and indirect discrimination in recruitment, training, pay and promotion, and dismissal. The burden of proof was altered so that the victim must present evidence of the likelihood of discrimination but does not have to prove it. The 2003 Lellouche law increases the severity with which racist and anti-Semitic offences are judged, but indirect discrimination is not taken into account in the Criminal Code. France created a High Authority against Discrimination and for Equality in December 2004. The new Labour Code, Lellouche law and High Authority bring French law into compliance with the European Union (EU) directives against racial discrimination and discrimination in employment.

As of end-2005 most jobs in the public services, state owned companies and regulated professions were not open to non-EU nationals.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The centralized nature of the French state, and its emphasis on a unified identity, has made action on minority issues difficult. The country is only one of four of the 46 members of the Council of Europe not to have signed its Minorities' Convention (FCNM) and neither has it ratified the Charter on Minority and Regional Languages (see Governance section, above). It has declared a complete reservation to the United Nations (UN) article on the rights of minorities, saying in effect that there are no minorities in France. With regard to rights of minorities, France continues to have one of the weakest records in Europe.

In May 2007, France elected Nicolas Sarkozy as its new president. It is unclear how he plans to deal with these issues. He has a track record of talking and acting tough over immigration issues. As minister for the interior, he wanted to expel 'foreigners' who had been involved in 2006 urban riots, and championed proposals to make it easier to expel immigrant workers. His initiatives followed France's worst rioting in almost four decades – with much of the violence spilling out from run-down suburbs which have become ghettos for unemployed, low-income minorities – many of them of African descent. Minority Rights Group welcomes the fact that in his inauguration speech Mr Sarkozy identified human rights as one of his top priorities for foreign policy – but urges the president to reverse his country's opposition to key minority protections. A good first step would be to ratify the FCNM.

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.'

Racism and xenophobia

A series of polls in 1998 found France the most racist country in Europe. Racist and xenophobic attitudes have been on the increase since the 1980s. They were heightened in the 1990s with economic recession and the increase in immigration from Eastern Europe following the collapse of Communism. Extreme right-wing political parties benefited in the 1990, 1997 and 2002 general elections. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the main far-right party Front National (FN), came second in the presidential race in 2002. Candidates of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish FN polled the second largest share of the vote in various provinces of the south and north-east in the 2004 regional elections. However, the traditional parties have formed coalitions to keep them out of the leadership roles in most places. And in the 2007 presidential elections, Le Pen failed to repeat his performance of 2002 – he was knocked out of the first round of the presidential poll. However, this was mainly because mainstream parties had adopted a much tougher line on immigration issues. There have been increased incidents of Holocaust denial, which have led to prosecutions.

Since the events of 11 September 2001 there has been a wave of Islamophobia. Anti-Semitism has also increased on account of the intensification of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and the rise of more generalized French rejection of 'other' cultures. But there are also clashes between African Muslims and Jews. In November 2001 the government allowed the police to search premises without a warrant in certain circumstances as part of the 'War on Terror'. French opinion demands tougher measures against crime. With the majority of North African immigrant minorities ghettoized in large cities and because some of the community are political dissidents, police activity has increased in these communities. North Africans account for a disproportionate number of the prison population, around half according to some reports, while the number of all Muslims is around 6 per cent of the total population in France. Police brutality against people of non-European origin has been documented.

Religious symbols controversy

Controversy has also flared over the use of religious symbols. In 1989 the Conseil d'Etat had authorized the wearing of headscarves by Muslim girls in school. In 2004, after years of controversy, the government banned the wearing of overtly religious items such as the Islamic headscarf (see North Africans), Jewish skullcap, heavy Christian crosses by school children and school staff and the Sikh turban. Five French Sikh schoolboys were expelled for refusing to take off their turbans – another failed to be admitted to a school. Their cases are being challenged in the French courts. In December 2007, the Conseil d'Etat – France's highest administrative court – upheld three of the expulsions. United Sikhs, with support from MRG, filed a legal challenge to the law with the European Court of Human Rights in June 2008. United Sikhs likewise announced that they would file a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee on behalf of one of the boys. Sikh campaigners are also challenging the prohibition on the wearing of the turban for identity documents. On 11 June 2007, an application was lodged in the case of Shingara Singh, who had been refused a driving licence twice because he would not take off his turban for the ID photo. Minority Rights Group has been offering legal advice in this case, too.


The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) criticized France in its 2004 report for applying the penalties against Roma for unlawful occupation of land more rigorously than the Besson law on stopping places. There were far too few stopping places. The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in its 2005 report on France criticizes the authorities for failing to consult the Roma as the Besson law requires, and for the segregation of the community which encourages racism. Both ECRI and ERRC urge the government to do more for the stateless Roma from Romania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Education and culture

The centralized nature of French education and administration has led to the long-term decline of indigenous minority and regional culture and languages. Some of these are currently being revived with the new regulations on bilingual education and government support for cultural associations. Out of a school population of 12 million in 2002, around a quarter of a million were learning regional languages. However, the versions of minority languages taught in schools are often standardized or modernized. In some regions, for example, Brittany, the modern written language is quite distinct from the traditional spoken language and there is a generational gap between the traditional speakers and the children learning the new variant in schools. Parents have to learn the new variant in evening classes to be able to speak the language with their children at home. Occitan is the minority language with most speakers, but its six official variants are not all taken into account in new measures to promote the language. The approach for promoting the Oïl languages of the northern half of France is less coordinated than that for the Oc languages. But the number of pupils learning Occitan in school fell from 72,592 in 1998-9 to 67,549 in 2001-2, according to government figures.

The government provides some funding for minority-language teaching, also for cultural activities and for faith-based teaching. The budget is insufficient and the activities require funding from other sources. Faith-based activities are better funded than those of linguistic minorities, with foreign governments providing some of this finance. For example, the Algerian government funds some of the activities of the many cultural associations affiliated to the Paris Grand Mosque. The French government has agreements for faith-based teaching with the cultural associations of different faiths. Similar agreements are in place with minority-language cultural associations, Diwan for Breton, Ikastola for Basque, Calandreta for Occitan, Bressola for Catalan and ABCM Zweisprachigkeit for Alsatian.

From 2000 central government has a budget for research and protection of minority languages; for book publishing, including language textbooks, grammars and dictionaries; for plays, music and film production. Regional and local governments also provide funding for cultural events and associations. Rarely, local governments hold meetings and publish news in minority languages.

There are public and private television channels and radio stations which broadcast programmes in minority languages. There are many periodicals published commercially and by cultural associations in French and minority languages and some which are published only in the minority languages.


[1] ERRC estimate, 2005.

[2] Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques.

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