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Promoting ethnic diversity through social criteria


Text by Lorena GALLIOT

Latest update : 2008-12-22

France's constitutional principle of "égalité" may prevent president Nicolas Sarkozy from bringing affirmative action to France, but he and his newly appointed Diversity Comissionner (photo) will promote racial diversity through social criteria.

Bolstered by Barack Obama’s election, French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to boost French ‘affirmative action’ programmes. But his commitment to increasing diversity is limited by the principle of equality enshrined in the French Constitution, which makes it impossible to collect data based on race, or even to count minorities in census data.

Although racial discrimination is illegal in France, there is nothing in the law that compels companies, selective universities or political institutions to include people from ethnic minorities. In practice, it can be extremely difficult for minorities to break into the ranks of elite schools, politics, and business.

A commission led by former European Council President Simone Veil, charged with examining the possibility of modifying the Constitution to allow for racial integration measures, handed in a report Wednesday arguing against any constitutional tweaks, and favouring anti-discrimination measures based on social criteria instead.


Sarkozy forced to backtrack

A fervent advocate of bringing US-inspired affirmative action to France, Sarkozy was forced to change course. During a lengthy speech pronounced at the venerable Polytechnique engineering college shortly after receiving the Veil report, the president pinpointed the “ever-widening gap between the diversity of French society and the social and cultural homogeneity of the elites produced by our education system”, but stopped short of announcing any legislation explicitly favouring people from ethnic minorities.

Instead, he focused on measures requiring preparatory classes to get into elite graduate schools to raise the number of underprivileged students on scholarship to 30% of total admissions. Since ethnic minorities are over-represented in poorer social circles, these measures are expected to increase the number of blacks and Arabs in elite institutions. The president also proposed requiring 100 large companies to experiment with recruitment based on anonymous CVs, to combat rampant discrimination against names revealing an immigrant origin.

Sarkozy named Algerian-born industrialist Yazid Sabeg High Commissioner for Diversity and Equal Chances. This self-made man and virulent affirmative-action advocate has been charged with implementing these reforms before March 2009.

It’s time to let ‘egalité’ go

But for Nayé Bathilly, co-founder of NGO Diaspora Africa, this type of measure is too little too late. “In Sarkozy’s speech today I saw a lot of goodwill, but nothing on how we are really going to enforce racial equality” she said in FRANCE 24’s televised Debate. “I think it’s time to just let ‘égalité’ go”, she added, citing the overwhelming domination of white representation in politics and elite circles. “France’s National Assembly counts just one black member out of 555 lawmakers! Recent efforts to raise public awareness have led nowhere. Now it’s time to act.”

For Middlebury College Political Science professor Eric Bleigh, however, the Veil report and Sarkozy’s measures have the advantage of not generating the same kind of deep racial divisions that stemmed from affirmative action programmes in the United States. “The resentment felt among middle-class whites in the U.S because of affirmative action left lasting scars”, he said.

According to Bleigh, the key to Sarkozy’s diversity programme’s success is the "adequate statistical tools" the President wants to create to monitor the evolution of ethnic minorities in education, business and politics. “They’ll enable us to see if the social and territorial positive discrimination measures are working” and address strengths and weaknesses from there.

Not ethnic quotas, but ethnic monitoring

But for Alec Hargreaves, director of the French institute at Florida University, this amounts to postponing long overdue reforms. “As long as France’s ethnic differences are not addressed directly, the French system will be outdated,” he told FRANCE 24. Although he is opposed to implementing racial quotas, Hargreaves believes that setting clear racial targets and monitoring them is essential. “The French are not opposed to addressing racial inequalities directly; it’s the political elites who have been hiding their head in the sand for the past twenty years,” he claims. According to him, the Veil commission was unable to acknowledge the growing ethnicities in French society today.

Critics on the left go even further in their dismissal of Sarkozy’s efforts to increase diversity. “He can’t on the one hand pretend to fight against discrimination and on the other hand talk tough on immigration, fueling anti-immigrant clichés in the far-right” says Dominique Sopo, President of the French NGO SOS-Racism. Sarkozy’s newly appointed Diversity Commissioner himself believes that some measures announced by Sarkozy today “don’t go far enough”. “There’s certainly room to go even further,” Yazid Sabeg told Le Monde, adding that “the President didn’t close any doors” on further action.

Date created : 2008-12-18