The attack on the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015 and the subsequent shootings at a Jewish supermarket in the city's eastern suburbs left 17 people dead, stunning a country already struggling with social division and the rise of the far right National Front Party, who in April 2014 won an unprecedented number of seats in local elections on a strongly anti-immigrant ticket. In the aftermath of these events, President François Hollande restated commitment to protect freedom of expression, but also reiterated the government's responsibilities to end France's extreme inequalities, including the ghettoization of certain urban areas. The lack of social integration and spatial segregation of many of France's minorities, particularly its marginalized Muslim population, was acknowledged by Manuel Valls, France's Prime Minister, shortly after the shooting when he described the 'territorial, social, ethnic apartheid' at work in the capital, which has 'relegated the poor and heavily immigrant population to ghetto-like suburbs of Paris'.
Studies have found that certain ethnic groups, such as those of African descent, find it harder to move out of poor suburbs and are three times more likely to move into the least advantaged neighbourhoods. Spatial segregation also has an impact on unemployment, with recent immigrants facing much longer commutes, thereby restricting their access to jobs and adding to the barriers already raised by frequent discrimination against individuals of North African origin. The inequalities evident in Paris's suburbs or banlieues are visible in the poor level of housing, high rates of unemployment and the securitization of these urban fringes. Although tension has not reached the levels witnessed during the 2005 riots, violent crime in the banlieues remains a serous concern.
Naturally, the integration of immigrants and their descendants in French society has become a high priority for the government. Efforts have been further bolstered under the Hollande administration with a series of interventions, including a €5 billion investment in neighbourhoods where social disadvantage is significant. However, research conducted on the social exclusion experienced by immigrants in France concluded that the government's continued push for assimilation, together with the French political tradition of secularism (laïcité), may have prevented the state from tackling discrimination and in the process alienated some minorities. For example, France's law banning the wearing of full-face coverings on the grounds that their use reduced opportunities for 'living together' – a stance affirmed by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in July – has been condemned by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other rights groups as a breach of the rights of freedom of religion and expression. According to statistics gathered in 2009, an estimated 1,900 Muslim women in France are affected by the full-face veil ban, many of whom are well integrated into French society. The ban has provoked significant public debate regarding the potentially negative effects of laïcité.
According to a survey conducted in spring 2014 by Pew Research Center into European public opinion towards minorities, of the seven countries polled the proportion of French people with a favourable opinion of Muslims – 72 per cent – was the highest. However, a human rights report finalized in December and presented by the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muižnieks in February 2015 indicated a rise in intolerance and racism across France, particularly with regard to homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Muslim incidents. There were concerns in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks that hostility towards the Muslim population could increase further.
Anti-Semitic incidents have been on the rise in France as well as across Europe, nearly doubling in France in the first seven months of 2014, compared with the previous year. According to statistics published by the Jewish Agency for Israel, which encourages emigration to that country, the number of French Jews leaving for Israel remained steady at about 2,000 annually until 2013, when it rose to 3,400 before peaking at more than 7,000 during 2014. The agency predicts that as many as 15,000 French Jews will leave the country during 2015 in reaction to the attack in January this year on the Hyper Cacher supermarket in a Jewish neighbourhood of Paris, which left four hostages dead. However, Jewish community leaders urged calm, noting that emigration would be giving in to terror – many pointed out that the person who helped hostages to safety was a young Muslim.
The already tense public debate regarding anti-Semitism and freedom of speech was further polarized in January when French comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala was criticized for a down-arm gesture called the quenelle, a gesture interpreted by some rights groups as an inverted Nazi salute. It provoked Valls to issue a memo to police providing the legal justification for banning performances considered to be anti-Semitic, such as those by Dieudonné. Twelve months later Dieudonné was in the spotlight once again when, a few days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, he wrote on Facebook, 'As far as I am concerned, I feel I am Charlie Coulibaly.' By combining the popular slogan 'Je suis Charlie' (meaning 'I am Charlie'), used by thousands to express their grief for the murdered journalists and support for the magazine, with a reference to gunman Amedy Coulibaly, Dieudonné was deemed to be publicly supporting terrorism and was promptly detained by police.
Later in January, shortly after the 'Dieudonné affair', around 17,000 protesters marched through the streets of Paris chanting racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic slogans. The demonstration, dubbed the 'Day of Anger', ostensibly provoked by the government's inability to counter unemployment, quickly descended into a verbal assault on minorities. At least 150 protesters, mostly youth, were arrested and 19 policemen suffered injuries, including one who was seriously wounded.
The French government's policies towards its Roma population are an ongoing concern. In 2014, 13,483 people were evicted by law enforcement agencies from 138 different locations. This figure was lower than the number of Roma evicted in 2013, but remains high compared to neighbouring countries.
Many Roma are concentrated in communities on the edges of towns and cities with limited access to basic services such as water and sanitation. Roma face a number of obstacles in accessing education, employment and housing. Their illegal camps are systematically demolished by public authorities and many are often deported to their home countries.
One tactic employed to promote integration, as an alternative to eviction, has been the construction of so-called 'insertion villages', housing developments in existing towns, where certain Roma, selected using 'social diagnostics' on the basis of their education levels, language skills and job prospects, are rehoused in temporary facilities and provided with basic services and schooling for a limited period. However these methods have been criticized for being akin to social engineering, with the new settlements merely formalizing segregation and benefitting only a small sub-section of the Roma population.
In June the intersecting issues of urban disintegration and social discrimination against Roma and the banlieues were brought into stark relief when a group of around a dozen youth from a north Paris estate abducted Darius, a 16-year-old Roma boy, from a nearby camp and beat him severely before dumping him in a car park. Le Monde newspaper used their front page editorial to criticize the government, saying the attack was 'the result of several years of inefficient public policy which maintains the misery of these Roma communities and allows the racism latent in French society to prosper'. The Darius case served to highlight two central problems: the precarious situation of the banlieues and the inhumane treatment of the Roma. Certainly there are important questions to be answered about the danger of allowing parallel societies to emerge and the lack of police control in marginalized areas of France's cities.
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