As a child in France, you grow up with the patriotic idea that France is a great country doing all she can to protect human rights internationally.
Ever since our famous revolution, when we created the so-called universal declaration of Men’s rights, it is our universal duty to protect others. In this declaration, the word Men, Homme in French, was preferred to the gender-neutral Human, Humain, which in itself shows that the declaration in its essence was not made to be totally universal.
After leaving France 5 years ago, I became disillusioned with this national propaganda. I truly believe that our poor human rights situation in France is deeply intertwined with the bad treatment of its Muslim population. This article will draw on the problems of French colonisation to explain the current climate of tension around the French Muslim community.
So let’s start with colonisation. It is useless to say that this was problematic, because of torture, oppression, repression and so forth. The decolonisation period was as brutal. Let’s take the most extreme example, the Algerian war, where French perpetrators of torture remain unpunished today. This war showed another facet of France to the world. It showed that France was able to torture and censor for the good cause of human rights. Films like the Bataille d’Alger, demonstrating the widespread use of colonial torture, remained censored in France until 2004. Is a country that tortures and censors a country of human rights?
The consequences of the decolonisation wars in France were varied, including heavy flows of migrants to France from former colonies. These migrants who became French remain marginalised, in part because of insufficient integration strategies being implemented by the French government.
Consequently, migrants are relegated to colossal, precarious buildings on the city outskirts; the infamous banlieues.
This marginalisation of migrants, along with a deeply entrenched sense of injustice, appeared with the end of colonisation for some French, and many other factors led to an increase of racism.
A good example of the national rise of racism in the decolonisation period is the creation of the Front National (FN) in 1972. The party was conceived by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a former general of the Algerian war who was known to have used torture against Algerian freedom fighters. This party is known to be negationist, populist, extremist and to gather many racist, antisemitic and islamophobic members and supporters.
As stated in Hanna Uihlein’s piece, racism and Islamophobia are two distinct but often intertwined concepts. Islamophobia in France is inextricably linked to racism towards people originally from the Magreb. But Islamophobia is also problematically linked with our state, our laws, and our concept of secularism.
The legal separatism of Church and State in 1905 resulted in strict secular laws. In the French concept of laïcité, religion is strictly personal and should not be visible to others. It has resulted in the headscarves being banned in some public spaces such as schools, but also for teachers and journalists who have to choose between wearing their headscarf or practising their jobs.
This lack of religious freedom in the public sphere also creates a climate of tension and hate, as erasing Muslims women wearing headscarves from public spaces others them. This climate of otherness can also be felt by the rest of the population as it is a well-known fact that police heavily uses ethnic profiling when arresting people in the street.
Hence, when French Muslims express their view on caricatures being problematic, maybe displaced, they do not really complain about these cartoons, it is the general feeling of Islamophobia in French society that they decry.
They protest the systematic discrimination, their marginalisation, unequal violent police treatment. They complain about France being racist and Islamophobic.
This is an historical problem and the questionable situation of human rights in France is directly linked to the mistreatment of the Muslim population.
To the question of whether France is still a country of human rights, I respond: has it ever been one? Is a country that is sexist, racist, Islamophobic a country of Human Rights? Is a country that only considers white men’s rights as human rights able to claim the role of protecting human rights universally?