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Latest update : 2008-12-30

President Nicolas Sarkozy announced measures on Wednesday to help people from poor neighbourhoods get into prestigious universities and obtain good jobs, by-passing constitutional hurdles blocking racial affirmative action.

REUTERS -  President Nicolas Sarkozy announced measures on Wednesday to help people from poor neighbourhoods get into prestigious universities and obtain good jobs, moves intended to indirectly aid ethnic minorities.

Sarkozy favours positive discrimination to help resolve inequalities at school and at work, but the "equality principle" enshrined in the French constitution is an obstacle to any legislation explicitly favouring people from ethnic minorities.

In a speech delivered at the more than 200-year-old Polytechnique engineering college outside Paris, a symbol of French elitism, Sarkozy outlined an anti-discrimination plan.

"How can we talk about a republic when your success at school and in professional life depends not on ... merit but largely on your social origin, the neighbourhood where you live, your name or the colour of your skin?" Sarkozy said.

"It's impossible not to see the ever-widening gap between the diversity of French society and the social and cultural homogeneity of the elites produced by our education system."

Sarkozy, a Hungarian immigrant's son who did not pass through the typical elite channels to reach the top, made a huge political splash when he took office last year by naming women of Arab and African origin as cabinet ministers.

This was big news in a country where politics is overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Only one of the 555 members of the National Assembly from mainland France is from an ethnic minority. In the Senate, the proportion is three out of 312, according to anti-racist groups CRAN and MRAP.

Sarkozy's measures include requiring elite institutions to raise the number of students on scholarships, and creating special training programmes to help people from poorer neighbourhoods pass exams to get into the senior civil service.

He also proposes requiring 100 large companies to experiment with recruitment based on anonymous CVs, to combat rampant discrimination against names revealing an immigrant origin.

But Sarkozy's record on what is politely referred to in France as the "diversity" issue is mixed.

As interior minister in 2005, he referred to rioting youths from immigrant-dominated suburbs as "racaille", or scum, sparking criticism that he was partly to blame for weeks of riots in the suburbs that shocked the world.

Many critics on the left say that by talking tough on immigration and security issues during his presidential campaign he sought to lure voters away from the far-right National Front. He denies this, but many did vote for him.

In Wednesday's speech, Sarkozy tackled one of the most notorious bastions of elitism, the "preparatory classes" which train high-school graduates to take extremely competitive exams to get into elite institutions like Polytechnique.

He said that from the 2010 academic year, the all-important preparatory classes would be required to reserve at least 30 percent of places for students on scholarships.

Date created : 2008-12-17