Tales of everyday racism set France on edge
Paris -- When Lylia Kateb's French manager introduced her recently to the big boss, he added reassuringly: "But don't worry, she's a decent person." Despite being an Arab, was the implication.
Lylia’s tale of the slights faced as a young French woman of North African descent — even as a trained engineer — was one of hundreds of accounts of everyday racism mailed in to Le Monde newspaper last week.
In the year that Barack Obama was sworn in as US president, Aziz Medjeber told of having to change his name to the more French-sounding Laurent before he could find a job in Paris.
Pregnant with her first child, Lylia admitted she was worried about giving him an Arab-sounding name.
The spark for the outpouring of real-life stories was an article by Le Monde reporter Mustapha Kessous, who told of his own experience of prejudice.
Being turned away from a club or fancy restaurant, stopped and searched by the police, told the job or apartment is already taken or having to put up with a racist joke: for many in France his story struck a powerful chord.
Within hours of publication, the article drew 200 comments and was shared hundreds of times on Twitter and Facebook, where users were spotted changing their profile names to "Mustapha" in sympathy, according to Le Monde.
"Mustapha Kessous is every one of us," ran an op-ed piece the following day as TV and radio debates raged about the hard truths of racism in modern France.
For days the 30-year-old journalist’s name was the most searched-for term on the French Internet and one week on his story was the second most commented in the site’s history with 464 support messages.
For many, the stories were all too familiar.
"The trouble with ordinary racism is that whatever you say has been heard 1,000 times before, it no longer has the power to shock," wrote Thierry Velnon.
"But the fact this is coming from a journalist at Le Monde makes people sit up and listen at last," said Imed ben Abderrahmane from Paris.
The suburb riots of 2005, fuelled by anger among black and Arab youths who feel cut off from mainstream society, were an electric shock that forced France to face up to its chequered record on integrating minorities.
Since then, president Jacques Chirac and his successor Nicolas Sarkozy have promised tough action on discrimination, with the appointment in 2007 of three women ministers of African descent intended to send a powerful signal.
The French anti-discrimination watchdog, the HALDE, paid tribute to Kessous’ article as an "important and poignant testimony."
"It’s a remarkable story that takes the cause forwards," said HALDE spokeswoman Marylene Courivaud.
"It jolts people into thinking, ‘This can happen to a journalist too,’" she said. "We want people to understand that anyone can end up a victim."
A French ban on gathering any kind of ethnic data — in the name of republican equality — has long hobbled its ability to measure, let alone tackle discrimination.
But an experts’ committee is to report back to Sarkozy later this month suggesting ways to measure diversity, while taking account of fierce hostility to any kind of racial statistics.
"After years of denial, French society is finally waking up to the massive and systemic nature of discrimination, for access to jobs, housing and business creation," said Patrick Lozes of the CRAN black advocacy group.
"There is a real break with the past," he said.
Earlier this month the government’s efforts were dealt a blow when the interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, was caught on video making what seem to be anti-Arab comments.
The film shows Hortefeux at a congress posing with a man of Arab origin, saying: "There always has to be one. When there’s one, it’s OK. It’s when there are a lot of them that there are problems."
Hortefeux later voiced regret to the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), but insisted his comments were taken out of context. He stopped short of an apology while Sarkozy has refused to condemn his long-time ally.
The minister is to face off in court in December with an anti-racism group that accuses him of "racial insults" over the film.