Disabled and minority ethnic artists

France and Britain have radically different approaches to ethnic and religious diversity.

Minority ethnic artists

France is battling to protect its principle of keeping religion and state separate. Under the version of history which all French schools teach, the rigorously secular character of the state is a hard-won victory against the dark forces of obscurantism, anti-Semitism and authoritarian Catholicism which previously held sway. This secularism, known as laïcité, marks France out from most other western democracies. Under this doctrine, equality before the law of all citizens, regardless of their private beliefs, is supposed to be guaranteed by barring religion from the public arena.

The French model for dealing with diversity stems not only from this secularism but from the country's revolutionary ideal, which enshrines the equal rights and obligations of citizens as individuals. The French have an official High Council for Integration, designed to ensure that its integrationist tradition continues.

So, in France, there is no routine acceptance of multiculturalism and no strong laws against discrimination as in Britain.

France does not officially recognise the reality of minority ethnic groups and has yet to put in place an arts policy designed to reflect "ethnic diversity". When French arts organisations apply for funding, they are not asked to assess the minority audiences they target nor are they expected to address such issues. They do not have to say if they employ workers of specific ethnic origins or give the percentage of artists exhibited from ethnic minorities.

There are no special grants awarded to arts organisations dealing specifically with minority groups. Asian, Black or North African artists are not identified separately within official national arts bodies and there are no particular funding bodies or training schemes they can apply to.

This does not mean that the notion of multi-culturalism does not exist in reality. All over France you will find events and exhibitions of artists, musicians, writers and performers of different origins. Historical links to Africa mean there are African festivals throughout the year celebrating all art forms. Afrique en création is a government-led programme designed to help artists living and working in Africa in the performing and visual arts to gain access to a major international artistic network via grants and residencies - see Cultures France for more information.

Information about French anti-discrimination organisations and the work they do can be found on the sos-racisme website and on the LICRA website. These organisations defend victims of racism and are lobbying bodies to defend the rights of ethnic minorities in France.

Disability and accessibility

There is very little awareness amongst the general public in France of the practical difficulties facing disabled people and this might appear shocking to a British traveller. The French are only just getting to grips with the whole notion of accessibility. Older public buildings are adding "accès handicapé" little by little and new buildings are now obliged to incorporate these in their plans.

A lot of museums and art centres are accessible in some way, ranging from ramps to more wide-ranging access strategies, but it is worth checking on the level of accessibility beforehand. The Ministry of Culture has published a guide for cultural institutions to advise them on questions of accessibility.

Rail is probably the most convenient form of travel for disabled travellers in France. SNCF offers wheelchair compartments on all (TGV) fast train services. A Metro guide for diasabled passengers can be found here

In Paris and other major cities, public transport has seats earmarked for disabled passengers. Taxi drivers are obliged to take passengers using wheelchairs and to help them get in and out of the vehicle. Hertz, Avis, and National car rental agencies have hand-controlled vehicles at some locations, but these must be reserved at least 48 hours in advance.

Unfortunately, budget hotels and restaurants in France are generally ill-equipped for disabled visitors. Very few accessible bathrooms can be found in the one- to two-star range (and below). The brochure 'Paris-Ile-de-France for Everyone' (available in French and English for €9 at most Parisian tourist offices) lists accessible sites, hotels, and restaurants, as well as giving useful tips.

For general travel tips and accessibility advice in France read the official website of the French Government Tourist Office

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material.
The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice.
Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.