French idealized equality, ignored reality
Published December 1, 2005
PARIS - Rioting that engulfed depressed, largely immigrant suburbs made France painfully aware of its failure to fully integrate its minorities. But solutions are hindered by a paradox: Under French law, minorities don't exist.
A nearly 30-year-old statute that forbids researchers, demographers and others from counting people by race, ethnic origin or religion had been meant as a safeguard for France's cherished principle of equality. In practice, some people fear the idealism has blinded the nation to the realities of racial discrimination.
"In France, we have an ideal vision of society. ... But to put actions in place, we need a method to count," said Saliou Diallo, deputy mayor in charge of fighting discrimination in Evry, a suburb south of Paris hit by the rioting and arson attacks that erupted Oct. 27.
The 1978 law has roots in France's shame over its collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, when Jews were marked with yellow stars and sent to death camps.
But the law fits neatly into France's integration model, designed as a vast leveler for new citizens to adopt French ways within a generation - and lose their past.
Critics of the law contend there can be no equality unless France recognizes its cultural diversity. Support is growing for their view that compiling data on ethnic minorities - carried out to an almost obsessive degree in the United States and Britain - can be a powerful tool in gauging the extent of social inequalities.
Under France's model, there is no such thing as a second-generation French citizen, explained Patrick Simon, a sociologist with the National Institute of Demographic Studies. "The French model doesn't know if you are black and doesn't want to know," he said in an interview. "The idea that there is a reproduction of minority characteristics from one generation to another isn't possible."
Simon would like to see the law allow collection of information on minorities. Like other researchers, he uses indirect methods to skirt the restrictions.
While studying school segregation, his team used pupils' foreign-sounding names - rather than their origins - to get needed data, as did statisticians studying "academic apartheid" in Bordeaux. Other demographers have used the mother language to uncover the origins of second-generation French citizens.
Such tactics do not please everyone.
Herve Le Bras, a leading demographer and historian, is a purist in his support of the law. He argues that minorities face discrimination not because of their origins but because they stand out in a society where most people are white.
Lack of equality "is not because people have roots elsewhere," Le Bras argued. "It's because their skin is black, brown, their hair is curly, they have accents from the suburbs" and unusual names.
Le Bras has been at the heart of arguments over how to collect data. Seven years ago, he caused a ruckus by accusing some demographers of using unscientific methods to bypass the law.
Minorities already are organizing to make themselves heard. A federation was formed over the weekend to give an official voice to what it says is France's 5-million-strong black community. One black group, the Circle of Action for the Promotion of Diversity, is pressing for data-gathering that includes ethnic origins.
[Last modified December 1, 2005, 01:08:09]
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