France's Asian community fights back against racist attacks during pandemic

People hold signs to protest racism outside a court building in Paris where five men went on trial for tweeting threatening, hateful messages directed at Chinese people on March 24.
People hold signs to protest racism outside a court building in Paris where five men went on trial for tweeting threatening, hateful messages directed at Chinese people on March 24.  © Antoine M.

“It was just to make my friends laugh” – that’s what one of the five young men accused of tweeting threats and insults directed at Chinese people last October said in a Paris courtroom on March 24 as activists and community leaders of France’s Asian communities looked on. 

The tweets, posted just after French President Emmanuel Macron announced on October 28 that France would enter its second coronavirus lockdown, blamed Chinese people for the new stay-at-home restrictions. 

For Laetitia Chhiv, the president of the Association of Young Chinese of France (AJCF), the tweets were no laughing matter. Speaking to the panel of three judges, she described the shock of looking at her phone and seeing messages on social media calling for violence against Chinese people.

“I had never seen that,” Chhiv said. “It really hit me: This form of racism has been normalised.” 

The trial was initiated by a special unit launched in January to fight online hate. Chhiv described the proceeding, the unit's first, as a “key moment” for France’s Asian community.

“That we’re speaking of the Asian community for an inaugural affair, it’s really something,” the 35-year-old activist said. 

On the day of the hearing, Chhiv attended a meeting with France’s Minister for Gender Equality, Diversity and Equal Opportunities, Élisabeth Moreno, along with members of seven organisations representing people of Asian descent in France, to discuss the government’s commitment to fighting racism and discrimination. 

Two lawmakers who authored a report on racism in France that included AJCF’s input were also in attendance. The verdict is expected on May 26. 

The report mentions “the increase of anti-Asian racism” in France in 2020, Chhiv said, a phenomenon borne out by the “exponential rise” of reports of discrimination her organisation has received since the end of January 2020. 

Sun-Lay Tan, spokesperson for Comité Sécurité Pour Tous (Security Committee for All), an advocacy group for France’s Asian communities, also attended the meeting with Moreno. He wants more visibility for Asian cultures, advocating for Asian cuisines to be included in school cafeterias. 

“[The cafeteria is where] children discover other cultures,” Tan said, adding that he first tasted couscous, a North African semolina-based dish, at school in France.

Tan, 42, also said he would like to see multicultural content in middle and high school history books. He mentioned the approximately 140,000 Chinese workers who came to France in 1916 to support the French and British armies during World War I. A statue was installed outside Paris’s Gare de Lyon train station in 2018 to recall this event.

“When I was at school, I learned about Napoleon, Louis XVI, Louis XV… we didn’t learn about this,” he said.

In solidarity with US activism

Dozens rallied to protest against anti-Asian racism outside the Paris tribunal on March 24, carrying signs including “In Atlanta or in Paris, no to anti-Asian racism,” a reference to the fatal shootings of six women of Asian descent in the US state of Georgia on March 16. 

Although an incident of that magnitude has not struck France’s Asian community during the pandemic, several French Asians in the Paris region have been attacked. A middle-aged woman of Vietnamese descent was attacked at a bus stop just outside the 13th arrondissement (district), home to Paris’s largest Asian population, on October 20, and days later, a young student of Asian descent told police he was “beaten up” and verbally assaulted in a park in the 19th arrondissement, French daily Le Parisien reported.

The Covid-19 pandemic has sparked "new dimensions of anti-Asian racism", France's Institute of National Demographic Studies reported in May. 

On the same night Macron announced the second lockdown and the five men on trial posted their tweets, a man of Asian descent was attacked while walking his dog in the 13th arrondissement, suffering a dislocated shoulder.

In 2016, tailor Zhang Chaolin was violently beaten to death on a quiet street in northern Paris, an assault that sparked mass protests from the Asian community and sparked a nationwide debate on anti-Asian violence in France. 

AJCF will release a video Monday entitled 'We Belong Here', a series of photographs of people of Asian descent on the roof of a popular mall in the 13th arrondissement.

Chhiv said the video is intended to show solidarity with the #StopAsianHate movement in the US and connect it to recent events in France.

“We made this video to show the link between all of this,” she said. 



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