France: Hate Crimes on the Decline, Xenophobia on the Rise

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The good news, according to France’s official National Consultative Commission on Human Rights  (CNCDH), was the number of racist and anti-Semitic acts in France dropped significantly in 2010—down 13.6% from 2009. But the bad news, the CNCDH’s annual report adds, is that in contrast to that decline in the number of reported racist and anti-Semitic acts and threats, xenophobic attitudes and opinions increased across French society for the first time in nearly two decades. And the main factor fueling that rising wariness of “the other” appears to be the growing ease with which French public figures—including politicians–feel they can stigmatize foreigners and minorities in ways that until recently had been considered the unacceptable reserve of the extreme-right.

The CNCDH’s yearly survey of hate crimes and speech in France shows acts of racism fell by 25% in 2010 (or 165 cases versus 220 in 2009), while racist threats were down 10.5% (or 721 and 810 respectively). Acts of anti-Semitism over the same period declined 24% (131 in 2010 and 172 the previous year), and threats against Jews fell 48% (from 643 in 2009 to 335). Arab individuals and Muslim structures were the leading targets of hate crime in France last year (34% of such cases) following a spree of arson and vandalism against mosques and graveyards; acts of anti-Semitism receded due in part to fewer clashes between Israel and Palestinians than in 2009. But despite the lower number of racist and anti-Semitic acts accounted for in 2010, the CNCDH warns that the general curve of French racism and anti-Semitism has been on a gradual and continual rise since 1993. Just as bad, the organization fears last year’s lower figures may be the result of under-reporting and -accounting of aggressions, rather than significantly improved behavior. And the CNCDH’s annual poll measuring xenophobia and intolerance offers a good reason to suspect the 2010’s statistics may well have been misleading.On the surface, 2010 appears to have been the reverse image of most previous years, when racist and anti-Semitic acts and threats usually rose while attitudes of increasingly greater tolerance were reflected in polls. That combination suggested French society as a whole was evolving towards happier harmony, while cases of bigotry recorded were the work of a small, radical or criminal minority of thugs. That reversed itself in 2010, with the annual poll showing what the CNCDH warns is “a rise of intolerance” within a context of “dangerous banalization of racist speech” allowing “xenophobic attitudes (to) spread”.

For example, the survey found 48% of people viewing Muslims constituting a group separate from wider French society (up 4% over 2009), and 68% believing the wearing of the Islamic veil by women may pose problems to social harmony. Elsewhere the poll found 56% of people stating there are too many immigrants in France (up 9% from 2009), and 61% of those respondents saying the presence of foreigners made their lives more difficult. Another 67% said they believe many immigrants come to France exclusively to obtain welfare state privileges, while 59% said integration of foreigners and their children was succeeding badly, or “very badly” according to 14% of respondents.

What’s behind the contrasting decline in hate crime statistics and increasingly intolerant attitudes? Though diplomatic and careful not to assign blame directly, the CNCDH’s report makes it clear that–in stark contrast to the activist reporting and accounting methods in the UK (which identifies racist motive in what may initially be reported as ordinary crimes—or not reported at all)–France’s looser system of measuring hate crime and speech raises “questions about the quality and pertinence of (French) statistical tools” and their “reliability”. The likelihood that scores—or perhaps hundreds—of racist or anti-Semitic offenses aren’t making it in to national statistics in turn casts doubt on the 2010 “data made available to us”, the CNCDH wrote. Stripped of conditionals and qualifiers, that basically means the CNCDH isn’t really convinced that acts of racism and anti-Semitism fell nationally in 2010 as the stats suggest—and virtually vanished in various spots on the French map where xenophobic acts previously flourished (notably Corsica).

The main reason for the CNCDH’s suspicion is the improbability of actual acts of intolerance falling when the xenophobia that typically produces them has risen. The poll findings, in other words, suggest a general atmosphere conducive to more racism, not less. And there’s logic to suspecting French attitudes of intolerance have hardened of late. French conservative politicians seeking to woo support of voters from the extreme-right National Front party have over the past 18 months repeated use of themes like defense of national identity, the place of Islam in France and its compatibility with state secularity, and the supposed link between crime and immigration. Intentionally or not, that embrace of traditional extreme-right themes using often controversial language has had the effect of turning long-held taboos into reoccurring themes echoed among mainstream French conservatives—thereby lowering the bar of what’s considered acceptable speech.

Parallel to that has risen an entire group of extremely high-profile neo-reactionary pundits and polemicists who also use at times shockingly bigoted language in defending intolerant political positions vis-à-vis minorities and immigrants. Those commentators have increasingly become featured guests of chats shows and debates on French TV and radio stations aware of the affect that controversies sparked by provocative comments and divisive positions on social, racial, and religious issues will have on their ratings.

Without naming names as such, the CNCDH’s report issues a clear warning that cynical and glib manipulation of xenophobic reaction latent in France society has produced a rise of intolerance that the decreased—and questionable—official data on hate crime simply can not mask. “Fear of the other, perceived as a threat, produces increased intolerance…(and) the support for the National Front may be a manner of expressing those fears,” the report notes. “Renewed vigilance by authorities is therefore necessary to be able to efficiently fight the phenomenon of racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. This vigilance is all the more vital in that 2011 will be a year of transition”.

Transition to what will be determined by French politicians and pundits currently leading the national debate on race, religion, and immigration—and in voter reaction to whether the language and positions they hear within that is acceptable in the France they want to construct for the future.