© 2012 Human Rights Watch

French version of Jean-Marie Fardeau’s op-ed published in Le Monde on August 28, 2012

During the first three months of Francois Hollande’s presidency, the "unraveling" of emblematic measures of the Sarkozy period was expected. On the fiscal and social levels - overtime, social VAT, solidarity tax on wealth, pensions - it has already started, but if there is one issue where change is still to be seen, it is human rights, in France and around the world.

In France, a mixed record

The recognition of the right to marriage for homosexual people will be - when passed - a welcome step that must be acknowledged. But the brutal evacuations of camps occupied by Roma from Romania and Bulgaria has reminded observers that  repressive practices die hard and that the laws regulating entry and stays of foreigners on French soil – which were symbolic of the Sarkozy period - have not been part of any "unraveling" process yet. However, those in power today had denounced them when they were part of the opposition. It would be to their credit to repeal  unacceptable legislation that targets the Roma de facto,and in particular the articles of law providing for the deportation of foreigners - including EU citizens who have legally lived in France for less than three months - on suspicion that they might "abuse  social benefits" passed in 2011. The government should also revise several other legislative provisions on immigration and asylum unworthy of our country, such as the one adopted in 2011 extending the "waiting areas" where the rights of foreigners are restricted. It should also put an end to the “non-suspensive”  – or out-of-country-  appeals   for certain categories of asylum seekers after their first application was rejected by OFPRA.

As far as the sensitive issue of identity checks is concerned, the candidate Hollande made a commitment  to pass laws  to reduce as much as possible the racial profiling in police controls, which causes deep humiliation in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The prime minister repeated this promise on the eve of the second round of the legislative elections. Respecting this commitment – of which  giving  a receipt after a police stop  is a necessary, but not  sufficient, aspect – would allow Hollande’s five years of presidency to be remembered as the years of a greater respect for youth from disadvantaged suburbs, a signal our country urgently needs  to reconcile with itself.

On the international scene, does France want to set an example?

Public attention is logically focused on Syria, and the French policy has remained firm on that issue. Although France has not yet managed to convince all its European partners to publicly ask for the referral of Syria’s case  to the ICC, it has maintained a clear position in favor of the respect of fundamental rights in the country. But for the sake of consistency, it would be preferable to avoid blunders like last June during the Eurosatory arms fair, when Thales - partly controlled by the French State - signed a contract with the main Russian arms consortium -- the same one that continues to provide heavy weapons to the Syrian regime.

But it is in less visible details that the devil hides. And, as far as human rights are concerned, the Hollande presidency seems almost  embarrassed when it comes to expressing its indignation out loud in the face of "influential" regimes. Two recent examples. On July 27, François Hollande discreetly received the King of Bahrain at the Elysée. The monarch had come for a vacation on the Côte d’Azur and requested a meeting with the French president. Well-informed of the situation in Bahrain, the Elysée was first hesitant to accept the appointment but finally did without making it public. If an AFP photographer had not taken a picture, the visit would have gone unnoticed. But it would have been wiser to openly receive the King of Bahrain and to let him know publicly the French expectations on fundamental rights in that country: the release of political prisoners and an end to discrimination against Shia. Most certainly, this awkward silence will have been interpreted  by the hardliners in Manama as a sign of weakness.  A few days earlier, on July 21, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, signed a law –  passed a few days earlier by the State Duma and the Upper House - that now compels Russian groups financed by foreign funds to display the words "foreign agent "on all the documents they publish. To date, France has made no public comment on this topic or on any other repressive measure other than the conviction of the Pussy Riotsingers, a public condemnation that will not suffice to bend Putin on the authoritarian trends of his regime.

For China, it is still too early to draw conclusions. Laurent Fabius’ visit in preparation for Hollande’s trip - scheduled for late 2012 - was marked by great discretion on human rights, which were only mentioned to an audience of students. Let us suppose that the French president will find the words to address his Chinese interlocutors, especially on the deterioration of the situation in Tibet and on the cases of political prisoners, including Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

The first three months of Hollande’s presidency are thus rather disappointing when it comes to France asserting the fundamental principles it intends to promote around the world, principles that have recently been reaffirmed in the EU Strategy for human rights that was adopted in late June 2012. France did so too sparingly, and the two statements against the execution of people in death row in the United States are not enough to make up for the perceived lack of a strong French voice. We expect more from the French Presidency, which should not hide behind the European voice, even though the latter is essential. After a period marked by double standards and the adoption of legislative measures stigmatizing foreigners, we expect our country to become a benchmark of consistency between words and deeds. We expect the political and diplomatic courage  needed to address publicly -- and not just privately -- sensitive issues, including with powerful or economically attractive countries. In this area, we expect real change.