France’s wake-up call: Confronting racial disparities

July 4, 2023
5 mins read
Image: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The recent riots that have taken place in France were sparked by widespread public anger over the police killing of a 17-year-old teenager of Algerian and Moroccan descent during a routine traffic stop. These riots have unfolded across major cities, including Marseille, Lyon, Pau, Toulouse, and Lille. Protesters in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre, where the teenager was killed, resorted to setting cars on fire, blocking streets, and launching projectiles at the police. Numerous acts of vandalism and arson, such as a bank fire and the looting of a Nike store, have been reported.

To disperse the crowds in Marseille, the police used tear gas grenades, while in Grenoble, local transport workers ceased their services after a bus was attacked with fireworks. The unrest has even extended to Brussels, where clashes between young individuals and police officers led to multiple arrests and the disruption of public transport operations.

This event marks the third fatal shooting during traffic stops in France this year, and reports indicate that the majority of victims in such incidents since 2017 have been individuals of Black or Middle Eastern origin. The teenager, Nahel M, was shot during the morning rush hour after failing to comply with a directive to stop when observed driving in a bus lane. The officer involved in the shooting claimed that he had intended to shoot the teenager in the leg to prevent a potential car chase but was jolted, causing the bullet to strike the teenager’s chest instead.

President Emmanuel Macron has expressed his condemnation of the shooting and the ensuing unrest. This incident has amplified longstanding grievances in France regarding police violence and systemic racism within law enforcement agencies, particularly in low-income, racially diverse suburbs surrounding major cities. A local councillor in Blanc Mesnil, located northeast of Paris, voiced the sentiments of many, stating, “we have experienced this injustice many times before.”


The issue of racism in France presents itself as a complex matter, encompassing both societal and institutional dimensions, with law enforcement being one such institution. It is important to acknowledge that while individual instances of racism can occur independently, institutional racism often serves as a symptom of broader societal problems.

As exemplified by the recent riots in France, serious concerns regarding racial bias in French policing have come to the forefront. This pattern of treatment by law enforcement towards minority groups has engendered long-standing complaints regarding police violence and systemic racism within the French police force, particularly in low-income, racially diverse suburbs. Societal racism in France manifests itself across various domains, including employment, housing, and education. For instance, a study conducted by France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies revealed that job applicants with names suggesting a foreign origin were less likely to receive interview invitations, indicating discriminatory practices in hiring processes.

Moreover, in the housing sector, a testing campaign conducted by the city of Paris in 2019 unveiled that 50% of rental applicants with names perceived as of North African origin faced discrimination. Similarly, in the field of education, a 2019 report by the French National Education Ministry found that students with immigrant backgrounds were more likely to face disadvantaged social circumstances, underscoring the systemic inequalities they encounter. Furthermore, ongoing debates surrounding the French principle of “laïcité,” or secularism, have targeted and relegated certain minority groups, particularly Muslims, through the prohibition of religious symbols like hijabs in public schools.

Although these examples do not conclusively prove the prevalence of widespread societal racism, they do highlight areas where racial disparities and discrimination are evident. These societal issues contribute to the formation of institutional biases, as observed in policing. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that the French government and numerous civil society organizations are actively working to address these problems and foster greater equality and understanding among all French citizens.


Addressing the issues of exclusion, racist policing, and social discrepancies in France requires a comprehensive approach that encompasses immediate actions as well as long-term societal changes.

One such approach begins with policy and legal reforms. These reforms should encompass comprehensive measures aimed at combating racial bias in policing, improving community relations, and ensuring accountability for instances of misconduct. Additionally, efforts should be made to actively promote diversity within the police force to reflect the communities they serve. Beyond policing, it is imperative to strengthen and rigorously enforce anti-discrimination laws in employment, housing, and education, ensuring equal opportunities for individuals regardless of their racial or ethnic background.

Parallel to policy changes, education and public awareness play pivotal roles in driving societal transformation. This includes revising school curricula to incorporate diverse histories and narratives that foster understanding and respect for all communities in France. Public awareness campaigns can challenge stereotypes and prejudices while celebrating the benefits of cultural diversity and social cohesion.

To enhance the relationship between law enforcement and communities, community policing initiatives can be implemented, enabling police officers to cultivate strong connections with the communities they serve, thereby fostering trust and mutual respect. Additionally, community programs that support socio-economic development, particularly in disadvantaged areas, can provide valuable resources for education, job opportunities, and social services.

Facilitating communication channels and ensuring representation represents another vital step toward societal change. This involves encouraging dialogue among various ethnic and religious groups to foster mutual understanding and respect. Greater representation of diverse communities in public offices, the media, and other influential sectors can challenge stereotypes and ensure that a range of perspectives is considered.

Lastly, a re-evaluation of the implementation of France’s principle of “laïcité,” or secularism, may be warranted. This principle has been a source of controversy, particularly for the Muslim community. A reassessment of its application could ensure that it upholds the principles of freedom of expression and religious freedom while maintaining a secular state.

Implementing these strategies demands substantial effort, resources, and a resolute commitment from both the government and society at large. Regular evaluation of the effectiveness of these strategies and necessary adjustments are crucial. The ultimate goal should always be to cultivate a society where everyone, regardless of their background, is treated with equity, dignity, and respect.


An authoritative and determined perspective is paramount when considering the way forward in addressing the prevailing challenges at hand. It is of utmost significance to underscore that the issues currently under consideration have been unfolding over a span of at least two generations. During the mid-1990s, there was a plethora of reports documenting urban disturbances stemming from young minorities of African and Middle Eastern descent residing in the suburbs of Paris. Unfortunately, extraordinarily little progress has been made in the past 25 years. In fact, the situation has deteriorated, with ethnic communities in France, often comprising Muslim minorities, increasingly subjected to exclusionary practices and racial profiling. Simultaneously, the concept and implementation of secularism have become more stringent, resulting in heightened perceptions and tangible experiences of exclusion for Muslims in France.

Furthermore, the population of these minority groups continues to grow in relation to the broader French demographic. Nevertheless, there has been a failure to adequately invest in education, employment, and training programs that are crucial for ensuring that French-born children of immigrant families are not perpetually left behind by the wider mechanisms of society. This neglect has bred apathy and disregard among these excluded communities and, in certain instances, has fuelled simmering anger that requires minimal provocation to manifest as violence against state institutions. Law enforcement agencies, notably, endure the most of this reaction.

To effectively tackle these issues, mere expressions of sympathy or understanding are insufficient. Instead, a genuine and concerted effort is imperative, rooted in substantive and robust action plans. Such strategies must be resilient in the face of substantial societal resistance. It is disheartening to witness the increasing acceptance of far-right political discourses throughout Europe, which has resulted in the normalization of nativism and casual racism in numerous societies. If these prevailing trends persist, we can anticipate a surge in violent incidents, particularly among minorities who remain excluded, racially targeted, and subject to state-sanctioned violence through unreformed law enforcement agencies.

Given the lengthy and ongoing discussions that have already taken place, it is vital that these patterns be redirected moving forward. Failure to do so will perpetuate existing grievances and lead to an increased prevalence of violence. Consequently, a comprehensive reassessment of policies and practices is indispensable to ensure the inclusion and well-being of these minority communities.

The article was originally published here


Tahir Abbas

Tahir Abbas is Professor of Radicalisation Studies at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University in The Hague. He holds a PhD in Ethnic Relations from the University of Warwick (2001). His current research interests are the intersections of Islamophobia and radicalisation, gender and violence, inter-generational transmission of Islamism, and ethnic relations.

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