There are a number of studies and many organisations that have dedicated their time to decoding the reasoning behind criminal action. The most commonly referred to factors are; poverty, exclusion, neglect, inequality of opportunity, mental illness, broken homes and peer pressure. The criminal Arab is a stereotype in France, in the media and in day to day humour, but does it reflect reality? Purportedly every stereotype comes from some form of truth and the facts show that France’s prisons hold an overwhelming Muslim majority. As racial demographics are illegal to publicize in France, we are forced to make the intelligent assumption that what affects the Muslim community is likely to affect the Arab community. Common images of Arab faces behind bars on television, the news and in film become ‘reality’ in parts of popular culture. In 2011, Press TV reported that 70% of the prison population of France is Muslim (1) – France is currently fifth in Europe for its incarcerated populace and Muslims represent a meagre 5-10% of the nation’s total religious make-up.
Arabs are not all criminals, but the percentage of Muslims in prison alludes to their criminal nature, does it not? The immediate response to such an accusation is that there undoubtedly exists a form of institutional racism within the system, but whether or not institutional racism alone could justifiably fill up 70% of prisons; I am not qualified to judge. The UK is currently struggling with the disproportionate use of stop and search tactics against black men. In 2009, 27% of the prison population was represented by an ethnic minority (2) and the UK figures from 2013 are as follows: This demonstrates that France is not alone in its need to cure the skewed racial population of prisons. The history of North African immigrants in France has been bleak, filled with poverty, slums and camps. Many have still been unable to escape the ghettos established in the early 1900s and the lack of opportunity which allows the youth to leave, has naturally trumped the most vulnerable. Many are second or third generation children of immigrants and the high levels social exclusion rife in these communities is worsened by the inability to find work, driving too many to petty theft and crime. A state that is hung up on tradition, that encourages assimilation rather than multiculturalism as a condition to acceptance in society, breaks the connexion between communities and therefore committing a crime against one another is orchestrated with less guilt. To use an African proverb “If the young are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth.” Arabs do not have crime in their genes, but they do fill the prisons and in addition to the social and economic factors, political discourse continues to heighten the sense of segregation between the estranged, and the rest of France.
The 2011 ban on the face covering may be seen as an attempt to hide the physical presence of Arabs in the country and is sure to have deepened disaffection and angered the youth. I wished to take this discussion further than the usual calls of institutional racism, in the hope of dispelling immediate assumptions about those who have been imprisoned on small charges. I hope in turn, that it is unnecessary for me to clarify that Arabs are not all thieves, bombers or ignorant and that such assumptions are racist. Any government funded studies on this topic are unlikely as the political will does not exist, despite the strain this is causing on public services. The welfare of prisoners are a sign of a developed society and like others in this respect, France has a grandiose task ahead of it.