France Struggles To Help Immigrants Without Sacrificing Ideals

France Struggles to Help Immigrants Without Sacrificing Ideals

By Celestine Bohlen

Dec. 5 (Bloomberg) — No blacks, Jews, Muslims or Asians live in France — at least according to its census.

In a nation that treasures “egalite'' — equality — as a central value, merely collecting data on race, religion and ethnic origins has been shunned for fear it distinguishes between citizens. Now, that value is running up against the reality of modern French life.

Riots in low-income suburbs last year provided a stark example of the frustration among youths of African and Arab descent. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, a candidate in next year's presidential vote, is calling for affirmative action to help the estimated 6 million citizens of immigrant origins.

For France, which for centuries has assimilated immigrants, special treatment for groups based on race or ethnicity would be an admission of the failure of a system that sits at the core of its national identity.

“We have a constitution that says all citizens are equal and French, which leads to the inability of the French republic to adapt to its own diversity,'' said Christophe Bertossi, a researcher at the Institute of International Affairs in Paris.

At the same time, many political groups, researchers and employers concede that ignoring the issue is no longer an option.

Racism Without Race?

“We say there is racism, but then we say there is no race,'' said Patrick Simon, a researcher at the National Institute of Demographic Studies in Paris. “Not having statistics makes France powerless to deal with the issue.''

Over the last 200 years, France has taken in more immigrants than any other European country, a study by the U.K.'s University of Sunderland shows. While immigrants in the 19th century came from Italy, Spain, Portugal and Belgium, most post-1950s immigrants — black, Arab and Muslim — came from Algeria, Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa.

Integrating their offspring has proved difficult. Joblessness in immigrant areas is about four times the national rate of 8.8 percent.

“Those who don't have the same skin color, who are born into families who don't know anybody, must be helped more by the state,'' Sarkozy, 51, said at a Nov. 16 convention of the governing Union for a Popular Movement.

Race and ethnicity data would help combat social problems, from discrimination to juvenile delinquency, he said in a May parliamentary debate: “If we refuse to recognize the composition of French society, then how will we integrate those whose particularity and identity we deny?''

Ruling in February

The National Commission on Information and Freedoms, which protects privacy rights, will rule in February on race and ethnic-origin-based statistics. A July 2005 decision found them to be illegal.

“The motor here are the companies,'' said Simon. “They're saying that what we have doesn't work.''

Paris-based insurer Axa SA asked about 600 job seekers in France in July about their original nationality or that of their parents. From the 400 responses, the company concluded that 20 percent of the applicants were of immigrant background.

“It is a way of validating our policies,'' said Antoinette Prost, Axa's director of research for human resources.

Roger Fauroux, a former president of building materials company Saint-Gobain SA who headed a commission on workplace discrimination last year, said the nation's leaders “need to shine a light on a truth that has been hidden for too long.''

Still Taboo

For many French, though, defining people by race, ethnicity or religion is still taboo. “The French don't dare talk about ethnic origin, in the way that Victorians didn't talk about sex,'' sociologist Dominique Schnapper said at an Oct. 19 conference at the Centre of Strategic Analysis in Paris.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie are among those who say such breakdowns go against the republic's ideals.

“I'm against positive discrimination because belonging to a community mustn't overshadow the needs of individuals,'' said Alliot-Marie, a possible presidential candidate.

French census-takers ask immigrants about their place of origin. They don't ask citizens about their race, ethnic background or religion — a sensitive issue after the census of French Jews by the Vichy government during World War II.

Some minority groups advocate race-based surveys. “We have to puncture the hypocrisy of those who believe this country is still all white and all Catholic,'' said Patrick Lozes, head of the Representative Council of Black Associations.

`Ethnic Counting'

Of the European Union's 25 members, only the U.K. asks questions in its census about ethnicity. In France, the High Administration for the Fight against Discrimination and for Equality, created in 2004, opposes “ethnic counting.'' Its president, Louis Schweitzer, former chief executive of Renault SA, rejects the U.S. as a model.

“On the question of discrimination, America is not our dream, but our nightmare,'' he told the weekly magazine Marianne last July. A recent study shows that 67 percent of the French were hostile to questions on race or ethnicity, he said.

Not the Black Associations' Lozes, who says he'd rather be asked about his race than where his family is from.

“Every time you ask about somebody's grandparents, you are continuing to say they are somehow less French,'' he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Celestine Bohlen at

Last Updated: December 4, 2006 18:01 EST