Activists say that the very fingers that accused Qatar of mistreating migrant workers during the World Cup 2022 should maintain the same attitude towards France as it readies to host Paris 2024.
Western media mobilised in the lead up to the FIFA World Cup in Qatar to call for a boycott of the major sporting event, citing alleged human rights abuses in the Gulf state. However, critics are now questioning the lack of such coverage of the Paris Olympics despite France being accused of exploiting labourers.
With the FIFA World Cup now in the rear view mirror, rights activists are now calling for the spotlight to shift to France for its violation of workers’ rights, and many have called out former Qatar critics for now appearing to shy away from speaking against a European country.
Authorities in Qatar at the time cited racism and Islamophobia as motives underpinning the overwhelming campaigns against it in the lead up to the 2022 FIFA tournament, which was held in an Arab and Muslim country for the first time in history.
Meanwhile, experts have called out the lack of accountability exercised over France as it prepares to host the landmark Olympics.
“France will host the Summer Olympics in one year’s time, yet the interim period gearing up for the global spectacle has already revealed a range of contradictions and familiar media-rooted hypocrisy,” Khaled Beydoun, law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and the Berkman Center at Harvard, told Doha News.
“Despite the systematic Islamophobia and racism rooted in France, hallmarked most starkly by the hijab ban and the recent police murder of young Algerian-French teen Nahel Merzouk, the western European nation has drawn little opposition to its hosting of the Olympics.”
“This is telling, particularly when juxtaposed with the indelible and incessant condemnations faced by Qatar for hosting the World Cup, which was nonstop years before the World Cup began,” Beydoun added.
Following a press investigation published on 5 January by the French newspaper Liberation, a scandal erupted concerning extensive violations committed by French companies against migrant workers employed in the construction of Olympic Games facilities for Paris 2024.
The investigation specifically focused on the exploitation of foreign workers who had entered France illegally and were engaged in the projects related to the 2024 Paris Olympics. These workers were subjected to strenuous labour conditions, which resulted in the unfortunate deaths of some individuals.
On top of that, the involved immigrants were provided with compensation that failed to meet their basic needs.
Liberation highlighted the testimonies of African workers from Mali who were engaged in a construction project for the Paris Olympics. These workers were reported to endure prolonged working hours while receiving inadequate wages. The investigation further revealed that France was exploiting these workers by employing them without proper work permits, although such situations are not exclusive to France and occur worldwide.
“I accepted it because of my status [without official residence]. If you don’t have papers, you have to accept hard work and all the lousy jobs, you have no other choice,” said one such worker.
“Everyone knows what is going on, but no one talks about it. Despite this, we were expelled without any rights if the immigration police came to the place,” the same individual added.
Another worker who went by the name Musa for safety purposes said: “We are doing this for the sake of the family in Mali, which we support [financially], and we make all sacrifices to do so.”
“All these beautiful stadiums were built by poor people, exploited people.”
“The French do not want to do this work, so they only bring foreigners, Pakistanis for electricity, Arabs for plumbing, and Afghans for construction, while the white French sit in the offices,” Musa maintained.
Abdo, another worker, came forth to Liberation saying: “We have no rights, no work clothes, no safety shoes, we have no right to medical examinations, and if one of us gets sick or injured, he will be replaced the next day.”
The newspaper revealed that the initial evidence of the mistreatment of undocumented migrant workers came to light in May last year when a group of 12 immigrants from Mali lodged a complaint with the French General Confederation of Labour.
They sought assistance in defending themselves against their exploiters.
Both French and African newspapers highlighted the exploitation of African workers by Paris, emphasising the historical context of colonisation and the use of nominal wages within hazardous and ‘enslaving’ working conditions.
Numerous undocumented workers voiced grievances regarding mistreatment, exploitation, and grueling labour for minimal pay, AFP reported in January last year. They also called for regularisation of their status.
The employment and exploitation of undocumented immigrants without proper work permits in the construction of the Paris Olympic Games led to heightened political and social tensions, as reported by AFP.
Following the surfacing of this scandal, various French and international newspapers promptly published reports on the offenses committed by France against the workers.
These publications insinuated that France had previously criticised Qatar’s management of the World Cup, claiming to advocate for the rights of the event’s workers, only to engage in similar actions now.
In December, Le Monde provided further details saying these workers were tasked with physically demanding labour, such as carrying heavy bags of cement weighing tens of kilograms up thirteen floors, while others specialised in constructing reinforced concrete structures.
The investigation highlighted that these workers lacked any form of social or legal protection, as they performed without proper authorisation, earning just over 80 euros per day, and were not granted any days off.
In March last year, L’Humanite released a report revealing that there had been three fatal accidents and numerous severe incidents at construction sites in the Ile-de-France region.
The extensive volume of construction work in Paris significantly raised the risk of fatal accidents, leading to tragic deaths occurring even on a daily basis in France, the report noted. These deceased workers often remained nameless and unrecognised due to their possession of forged work documents.
More recently, a group of ten workers without proper documentation, who were employed at construction sites for the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games geared up in late June to file a lawsuit against four construction companies involved in the projects.
The companies being targeted include Vinci, Eiffage, Spie Batignolles, and GCC, along with eight subcontracting firms. The workers alleged that, even after attaining legal status, they were subjected to working conditions without contracts, pay slips, paid leave, or compensation for overtime hours.
The workers who initiated the legal proceedings are being supported by established labour unions in France, and the trial is anticipated to commence in October.
They have voiced their grievances about the exploitation they experienced and have drawn parallels between their situation and that of workers involved in the Qatar World Cup.
“France is no better than Qatar,” claimed one of the workers, reports said.
Hypocrisy takes centre stage
Activists pointed out that the very issues France criticised regarding worker rights in Doha were actually transpiring with the workers in Paris. This raised the question as to why the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, called for a boycott of Qatar 2022 but remained silent regarding the violation of workers’ rights in her own vicinity, where incidents were occurring right under her nose.
When the FIFA World Cup in Doha was just less than two months away from unravelling, there was a growing chorus in France advocating for a boycott, spearheaded by Anne Hidalgo.
At the time Paris had joined other French cities who opted to not broadcast World Cup 2022 matches on massive screens in public fan zones, a move seen by analysts at the time as “perplexing [as to] why French cities are denying people the opportunity to watch games in fan zones”.
The hypocrisy of France was called out there and then when Francois Deroche, a French jurist and the head of Rights and Justice Without Borders, referred to the then-mayor of Paris’ choice to boycott Qatar 2022, citing worker rights violations, as “a kind of hypocrisy and tantamount to political trading.”
“Where was the mayor of Paris in 2018 when the World Cup was organised in Russia, while the latter was bombing Syria with bombs?” he questioned in statements to Al-Jazeera Mubasher back in October.
“These contradictions are recurring, and rooted in the idea that France is a civilised and advanced nation, despite its history of colonialism, postcolonial decimation of African nations, institutionalised Islamophobia and ongoing racial violence,” Beydoun told Doha News.
Further pointing out the hypocrisy of media, Beydoun added: “The French legislature even raised the idea of banning hijab in college and professional sports, which could impact the World Cup, but no movements or calls to ‘strip the Olympics’ from France have been had, let alone any negative media attention.”
Racism in France
However, the pressing issue of racial discrimination in France was brought to surface when a United Nations report was released in December 2022.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination acknowledged the ongoing existence of racist and discriminatory language within the country, particularly observed in media outlets and online platforms.
In a comprehensive assessment conducted by 18 independent experts, reviewing France’s approach towards minority groups, concerns were raised regarding the adoption of racist political rhetoric by political leaders, particularly targeting “immigrants, Africans, and people of Arab descent.”
The most recent case tragically signals to the grim story of an unarmed Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old of North African descent, who was shot by a police officer in France on 27 June.
The killing sparked at least six days of riots across multiple cities in France, with thousands taking to the streets to protest the deep-seated frustrations faced by individuals with heritage from former French colonies.
More than 3,600, with an average age of 17, were arrested in the days-long unrest, according to the French interior ministry.
Qatar 2022 criticism
Campaigns that called out for the boycott of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar were labelled “hypocritical” with officials in Doha saying the criticism largely disregarded reform made in the Gulf state, Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said in an interview with France’s Le Monde early November 2022, just weeks before Qatar 2022 kicked off.
“Is such racism acceptable in Europe in the 21st century? Football belongs to everyone. It is not reserved for a club of elites. Four hundred and fifty million Arabs are delighted that the World Cup is finally being held in their region,” said Sheikh Mohammed at the time.
Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani as well as other top Qatari officials repeatedly slammed “racism” behind the campaigns, especially since they continued to emerge despite Qatar addressing concerns and launching major reforms.
Sheikh Tamim described back in October the campaigns as “ferocious” and “malicious” and questioned intentions behind the criticism.
However, Beydoun said the tournament, the first such FIFA World Cup in the Arab world, is sure to stand the test of time.
“Perhaps one of the most powerful legacies of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be that it stands as a symbol, a powerful symbol, that western nations engaged in the systematic denial of human and civil rights are never accused of ‘sports-washing,’ and given a pass despite their entrenched histories and modern passages of oppression.”
“While Arab and Muslim countries, like Qatar, are scrutinised meticulously and ruthlessly, and not extended even the slimmest benefit of the doubt.”