Hint of ethnic statistics breaches French taboo

PARIS, (Reuters) – A French government move to  legalise statistics on ethnic origin has caused an uproar that  reveals deep divisions on how to tackle discrimination.

President Nicolas Sarkozy says efforts to help minorities  are hampered by a lack of data and he wants to find a way to  “measure the diversity of society”.

Anti-racism activists, academics and politicians reject the  proposal, citing France’s integration model which is based on  ideas going back to the 1789 Revolution about citizens being  equal and free from distinctions of class, race or religion.

“The controversy shows we’re not at peace with our  identity,” said Francois Heran, director of the state-run  National Institute of Demographic Studies, who is looking into  how the government can implement Sarkozy’s wishes.

“It’s as if questions about immigration and origins somehow  scared us,” Heran told Reuters in an interview.

In the name of equality, the French state asks no questions  about race or religion in the national census.

In practice, evidence of discrimination abounds. Riots by  mostly Arab and black youths in poor suburbs in 2005 exposed to  the world tensions that had been building up for decades.

With competition for scarce jobs increasing as the economic  crisis bites, such tensions are likely to get worse.

Sarkozy has ruled out affirmative action explicitly based on  ethnic origin but said he would use criteria such as low income  to help minorities indirectly. He has proposed requiring elite  colleges to admit more poor students on scholarships.


He also appointed a “commissioner for diversity”,  Algerian-born businessman Yazid Sabeg, who said this month he  would present a bill making it legal to measure diversity.

Sabeg says his law will not force citizens to answer ethnic  origin questions, but this has not placated Sarkozy’s critics.

“I would like to see France evolve in practical ways rather  than calling into question the principle of equality,” said  Malek Boutih, a former head of anti-racism group SOS Racisme who  is now a member of the opposition Socialist Party leadership.

He proposed reinforcing the powers of the existing state  anti-discrimination body and making greater use of the law  courts to prosecute discriminatory landlords or employers.

The newspaper Le Parisien published an opinion poll showing  that 55 percent of people opposed including ethnic origin in the  census, while 37 percent thought it could help fight racism.

Britain and the United States both ask citizens about their  ethnic origin in their censuses, but in France it is a taboo.

Heran said the debate was unnecessarily emotive as France  already had fairly good estimates of its minorities through the  census and other surveys that include people’s country of birth.

Asked why any change was needed, Heran gave two examples.

A million French colonists born in Algeria moved to France  when the country gained independence in 1962. They integrated  into French society much more easily than Algerian Arabs who  migrated to France for economic reasons, yet official statistics  make no distinction between these two communities.

Also, French citizens born in overseas territories like the  Caribbean island of Guadeloupe are majority black and there is  no way of reflecting that in statistics. Yet a six-week-long  general strike against poverty in Guadeloupe that ended on March  5 revealed deep divisions there between black and white people.


Although it is a separate issue, Sarkozy’s tough approach to  immigration has further complicated the statistics debate. At  the start of his term in 2007, Sarkozy favoured using quotas to  regulate immigration, but he was forced to abandon the idea last  year after a panel of experts judged it was against French law.

Critics say Sabeg’s plan to “measure diversity” smacks of  bringing back the quota idea through the back door.

Heran denied this and said his aim was to find anonymous,  voluntary ways of gathering statistics on discrimination.

“It is precisely because we believe in equality that we want  to describe inequality,” he said, recognising that it would be  difficult to reach a consensus on such a hot-button issue.

“There are extreme reactions and it cuts across political  lines. Before you know it, people bring up the Holocaust.”

Right on cue, historian Patrick Weil did indeed raise the  Holocaust when interviewed on the statistics issue.

“This is a country that 60 years ago, under Nazi occupation,  experienced the disastrous effects of racism … In France  thousands of Jews were saved simply because we had no such  statistics,” he told Reuters.

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