Events of 2015

France suffered two major attacks carried out by religious extremists during the year. On 7 January, an assault by armed gunmen on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, allegedly in reprisal for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, was followed by a series of other attacks that culminated in shootings at a Jewish supermarket in the city's eastern suburbs on 9 January. With a total of 17 people killed, the attacks were among the worst security incidents the country had experienced in several decades. While some of the subsequent public discussion focused on the exclusion of France's Muslim minority and the ghettoization of its immigrant population in marginalized suburban banlieues, the attacks also served to reinforce existing religious and ethnic divisions within French society.

These issues were brought into even sharper relief in November, when a series of coordinated suicide bombings and shootings targeting cafés, restaurants, a music venue and near the Stade de France stadium left 130 people dead and injured more than 350. In the wake of the attacks, France declared a state of emergency and imposed a range of provisions that greatly extended police powers to undertake searches, house arrests and other actions. Amid heightened security, hate crimes against Muslims rose sharply in the following days, with 32 incidents recorded by France's National Observatory of Islamophobia across the country within just one week. But while the attacks undoubtedly intensified negative attitudes towards the country's Muslim minority, the community has long faced worsening hostility and a widespread feeling that they are not fully part of French society.

Popular intolerance towards Islam and broader concerns about France's immigrant population, attitudes rooted in both ethnic and religious discrimination, have been reinforced by the rise of far-right political groups. While this trend has been apparent for a while, reflected in the unprecedented number of seats won by the far-right Front National (FN) in local elections in 2014, the attacks contributed to a further surge in votes for the party during the December regional elections.

Nevertheless, the fears expressed by the FN around assimilation, diversity and multiculturalism have long had currency within mainstream French society, resulting at times in incidents of hate speech and hate crime targeted at dress and other markers.

One incident, captured on film in the wake of the Paris attacks, involved a woman on a train in Paris insulting a Muslim man because she regarded his attire – a beard, a small cap and a qarmis, a long garment traditionally worn by Muslim men – as 'illegal' and 'offensive'. The French state has a long established principle of laïcité, loosely signifying the separation of the state from religion. This has been reflected in various state policies, including the controversial ban on face coverings in public that came into force from April 2011 – a stipulation that prevents Muslim women from wearing a full-face veil, the burqa or niqab, in public. This was preceded by the 2004 law banning conspicuous religious symbols at school, meaning female Muslim students were unable to wear a headscarf or hijab in class. Though not explicitly targeted at any one religion, in practice French Muslims, particularly girls, were most affected by the ban.

Though the ban has been justified by its supporters as a positive step to promote gender equality, arguing that many Muslim women wearing the burqa or niqab are coerced into doing so by other members of their community, others have argued that it has served to further isolate women in that situation who may be pressured into not appearing in public as a result. Furthermore, critics have argued that it has contributed to a broader climate of discrimination for Muslim women who wear face coverings, whether through choice or coercion. One example took place in December in Vénissieux, near Lyon, when the headmaster of the Jacques Brel secondary school reportedly asked a group of Muslim mothers to wait outside during a puppet show organized for their children. Though the reason given was that they were wearing hijab and therefore were in breach of France's Charter for Secularity in School, the Charter in fact forbids only pupils from wearing religious symbols to school, while making an exception for accompanying parents and adults.

Another area that has proved divisive is diet, with many schools deciding during the year to stop offering pork-free menus in the name of laïcité. This approach, while receiving the support of some public officials – Jean-Paul Beneytou, mayor of the small town of Chilly-Mazarin, claims that it was simply a way to 'preserve public sector neutrality' – the effect has been to further segregate minority students. The families of Muslim and Jewish children who do not eat pork for religious reasons have complained when pork main dishes are featured on the menu, as their children are no longer offered a different option.

Social prejudice in France towards its Muslim minority has also shaped its response to the current refugee crisis in Europe, with thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from largely Islamic countries like Syria now seeking sanctuary in the country. This has led to increasing tensions in certain areas, particularly the coastal town of Calais, as some locals have set up vigilante groups that have reportedly carried out attacks on refugees. In early 2016, demolition works in the open-air, state-sanctioned Calais refugee camp dubbed 'the Jungle' commenced. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International warned that this action risked making people already vulnerable to social and economic issues even more so. The camp's makeshift church and mosque were also razed to the ground, despite not being included in the original demolition plans, sparking anger and indignation among the camp's population.

Besides being the European country with the largest Muslim minority community, France is also home to approximately 500,000 Jewish people – the largest Jewish community in Europe. However, a significant number have been emigrating in recent years, partly in response to the perception that they are no longer welcome. While the attack on a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris shortly after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January, where 15 Jewish people were held hostage and four were killed, was particularly extreme, hate crime and hate speech more generally has reportedly been on the rise. According to figures released by the Service de Protection de la Communauté Juive (SPCJ), anti-Semitic acts in France continued throughout 2015, including death threats, online hate speech and physical assaults on people wearing the kippah and other religious markers. They recorded 808 anti-Semitic acts during the year, although SPCJ also noted that many victims were hesitant to file complaints after others had recently been killed on account of their faith. Perhaps as a result of these incidents and of an increasingly widespread feeling of being 'unwelcome', approximately 8,000 French Jewish people migrated to Israel in 2015.

Another minority that struggles with social exclusion is France's Roma, who face discrimination in many areas of their lives, particularly housing. The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) reported in July that an average of 150 Roma were evicted by the French authorities every week during the first half of the year. Anti-Roma sentiment in France remains pervasive. During the year, several bus drivers in Montpellier declined to pick up Roma children on their way to school, for example, while in a small municipality near Paris, several newly enrolled Romanian Roma pupils were offered to be taught in a separate building away from any school. The right-wing mayor of Champlan refused to bury a two-month-old baby because of his Roma identity, reportedly stating that graveyards are 'for those who pay taxes'. The mayor of a neighbouring town stepped in and gave permission for the burial to take place there; he called his colleague's decision 'incomprehensible'.

This 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.