The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner expressed concern on Tuesday over the rising tide of intolerance in France. Speaking at a press conference in Paris, Nils Muiznieks unveiled a 52-page report highlighting a marked increase in hate speech and discrimination over the past few years.
The report was finalized in December, less than a month before two gunmen opened fire on the Paris office of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, the beginning of terror attacks that left 17 dead across Paris.
In the report, the commissioner addresses the mounting issues of intolerance and racism, and argues that more should be done to protect the human rights of migrants, travelers, the Roma people, and people with disabilities. Muiznieks also notes a surge in "homophobic, xenophobic, and anti-Muslim" incidents, and says France is struggling with an overall "loss of tolerance."
An earlier report from 2006 painted a rosier picture, observing that human rights were subject to "a high level of protection" in France. The new statistics highlight the stark contrast between a nation that prides itself on being the birthplace of human rights, and the reality of daily life for the country's minorities.
Commissioner Muiznieks spent four days in France in September 2014 to undertake research for the report. He says that during his stay he observed "a disturbing breakdown of social cohesion and the principle of equality."
The French Interior Ministry was unavailable for comment to VICE News on Tuesday.
Muiznieks has not been shy about blasting French authorities for their insufficient efforts to curb the growing trend of discrimination in the country — a position endorsed by Pierre Tartakowsky, the president of France's Human Rights League (LDH).
Speaking to VICE News on Tuesday, Tartakowsky described the report as "extremely clear and honest," and applauded the commissioner for "not mincing his words" with regards to the government's accountability.
"In the present context, it's a useful report, because it sparks debate," said Pierre Henry, director of the French advocacy group Land of Asylum (FTDA). "However, the points raised by the commissioner have already been raised and have been widely documented."
The commissioner expressed concern over the plight of asylum seekers, and said France needs to be "more generous and show more solidarity" with Syrian refugees. "France has shown limited and controlled generosity, welcoming a mere 500 Syrians a year, compared to Germany, which has welcomed 10,000 Syrians a year," Henry noted.
According to UNHCR, close to 4 million people have fled Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011.
Muiznieks also called on the government to improve its commitment to migrants in the city of Calais, who live in dismal conditions in makeshift camps dotted around the northern port city. The commissioner has asked officials to implement durable housing solutions for refugees, and to protect migrants from intensified attacks by local right-wing groups.
The report also singles out France's Roma community, which has seen increasing pressure from the government as authorities escalate their policy of systematic evacuation of their camps.
The relationship between France and its Roma population has long been tense, and harsh government policy has further estranged the already-marginalized community.
The commissioner said he was shocked during his 2014 trip to France to realize that many Roma children in the southern city of Marseille were not enrolled in school, and underlined the need for authorities to guarantee Roma access to healthcare, education, and social benefits, and to combat widespread prejudice against them.
Tartakowsky echoed Muiznieks' views that the French government is not doing enough.
"We've gone from [former president] Sarkozy's policy of evacuation to a policy of dismantling the camps, but the result is the same," he told VICE News. "This creates confusion in people's minds, which in turn leads to subconscious racism, based on the fact that two successive governments have identified the Roma as a problem."
A national response
The commissioner has called for the French government to launch "a national action plan [to defend] human rights," and welcomed President François Hollande's pledge to make the fight against racism a "national cause" in 2015.
A report published this year by the French Jewish Community Protection Services claims that anti-Semitic attacks in France more than doubled between 2013 and 2014, and that 51 percent of racist attacks carried out in France in 2014 were against Jews, despite Jews representing less than 1 percent of the French population. The number of attacks against Muslims soared in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, with the National Observatory Against Islamophobia recording116 incidents in two weeks, including attacks targeting mosques.
Meanwhile, France's far-right National Front (FN) party has gained ground in recent years, feeding off anti-immigration sentiment and capitalizing on party leader Marine Le Pen's efforts to mainstream the FN's nationalist agenda.
Tartakowsky thinks that Hollande's "national cause" misses the point.
"It's the opposite of what we need," he told VICE News. "We don't need a rigid message — what we need is better coordination between community workers and public officials."
"The commissioner is right about the fact that France already has precious resources and a miraculous network of community organizations," said Tartakowsky, "but what is lacking is political coordination.
French officials, he said, have rushed to find solutions to France's racism problem following the January terror attacks, and have implemented "short-term" measures, "instead of getting to the root of the problem."
"It's a massive undertaking, which is something we've been saying for several years," he added. "Unfortunately, public policy is not helping to roll out community efforts."
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray