01/16/2015 03:13 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

Muslim Immigrants and the "Other France"

The tragic massacre in Paris prompted by cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo reflect some of the longstanding tensions concerning immigrants from former French colonies in North and sub-Saharan Africa. France now has the largest Muslim population in Europe. However, ethnic minority immigrants and their descendants do not fare well in French society. A large proportion of them reside in public housing complexes in suburban communities (banlieues) that surround French cities. Public housing complexes in these areas are neglected and physically deteriorating. The neighborhoods are largely segregated and isolated the neighborhoods in Paris. They contain high concentrations of low-income immigrants. Crime is high and the schools are often substandard.

Young men in these neighborhoods are the targets of police harassment. They are stereotyped as gang members and criminals. They are referred to as "immigrants" even though most of them are citizens who were born in France. The conditions in banlieues surrounding the "City of Light" are so stark that observers refer to those communities as the "Other France."

Immigration has been a potent political issue since the 1980s through, among other things, the influence of the National Front, a far right wing political party. The National Front's agenda consist of racist and xenophobic attacks against immigrants. The party has attracted a significant portion of the French electorate with its demagogic demands to deport Muslim immigrants. A cornerstone of its agenda is the "France for the French" slogan and policies associated with ending further immigration and making it increasingly harder for the foreigners already in France to get their citizenship. A 2013 survey showed seventy percent of the French population believe there are too many foreigners residing in the country.

Some of the conflicts involving France's Muslim population are based on the tradition of laïcité, (separation of church and state) which prohibits the display of conspicuous religious symbols in public places. Another French tradition, Republicanism, discourages the assertion of separate ethnic identities. Social integration for immigrants is conditioned on assimilation and a renunciation of an individual's origins, faith and customs.

In 2004 the French parliament adopted a law that prohibits female students from wearing headscarves in public schools. In 2010 a law was passed that prohibits women from wearing face-covering veils in public places. These laws disproportionately affect Muslim women as many of them interpret their religion to require scarves and veils in public.

There are other problems for immigrants. The levels of academic performance of the children of immigrants are below those of other French schoolchildren. Teachers often assume that they cannot perform at an adequate academic level. Immigrant-descended students are seen as disruptive and discipline problems Surveys show that teachers focus on the behaviors of ethnic minority students rather than their academic ability.

Ethnic minorities also suffer from employment discrimination. They are relegated into the lowest paying and least desirable occupations. They often are simply not hired at all. What academics have labeled as the "ethnic penalty" causes high levels of unemployment among them. There are a full array of French antidiscrimination laws including those that prohibit employment discrimination. However, studies have shown that the laws are not very effective in protecting the rights of these groups.

Racial and ethnic categories are not officially recognized in France. The French census does not disaggregate data by race or ethnicity. France is officially color-blind. However, France's race-neutral policies do not prevent the bias and discrimination. Race and ethnicity are unstated, but important aspects, of the immigration debates. French officials contend that race does not exist in their nation. However, the term "immigrant" refers to ethnic minorities who, in their view, refuse to embrace French values and traditions. Islam is considered by many to be incompatible with French values. Ethnic minorities are treated as undesirable étrangers rather than French citizens. The unspeakable carnage inflicted in Paris will heighten divisions that already exist.

This commentary is based on Professor Ware's forthcoming article, "Colorblind Racism in France: Bias Against Ethnic Minority Immigrants" which will be published by Washington University Journal of Law and Public Policy.