Next French Revolution: A Less Colorblind Society

Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 14

PARIS—Now comes the hard part. As the nationwide violence that has racked France for two weeks begins to abate, the country’s leaders and citizens find themselves facing tough questions about the fundamental values that define the French dream: liberty, equality, and fraternity.

In the face of dramatic evidence that so many of France’s ethnic minority citizens and recent immigrants feel that their society has betrayed its promises, one of the pillars supporting France’s vision of itself is shaking.

“The events mark a failure and perhaps the decline of the French model of integration [of its immigrants],” says Michel Wieviorka, director of studies at the School for Higher Social Science Studies in Paris. “It is not working any more, and needs at least reform, if not replacement.”

This will take a revolution in French thinking about integration, but there are signs that the recent violence has begun to persuade some policymakers that they’ll have to overhaul their color-blind ideals of citizenship and face up to the existence of ethnic minorities.

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Even before the recent trouble erupted in the country’s poorest and most heavily immigrant suburbs, business leaders, government advisory boards, and the intellectuals who dominate the policy debate in France had been inching toward new ways of thinking about immigrant integration. Their moves could provide the foundations for future reform, optimists say.

For example, 40 of France’s top companies—including Total, Peugot-Citroën, and Airbus—last year signed a Diversity Charter that commits them, among other things, to “seek to reflect the diversity of French society” in their hiring policies. And one of France’s most prominent business leaders, Claude Bébéar, is leading a campaign in favor of anonymous résumés, so that job applicants are not rejected because their names are not French.

France’s policy is to treat all its people as citizens, with no consideration of their color, creed, or race that could undermine national unity. The republic does not recognize ethnic differences; there is no room in the official view for “Arab-Frenchmen,” in the way a “Mexican-American” is seen as such in the United States. No official statistics are compiled to count the number of people descended from immigrants, or to pinpoint the number of Muslims in France.

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“The last great taboo the French need to face . . . the one absolutely critical part of the jigsaw that is still missing,” is ethnic monitoring, says Professor Hargreaves. That would allow businesses and government agencies to measure their workforce, or their provision of services, by ethnic category, and thus identify discrimination.

There are signs that this will happen. Equal Opportunities Minister Azouz Begag told FranceInter radio last week that after 25 years of “blah-blahing about integration, without giving ourselves any goals to meet” the government intends to “give ourselves the means, commit money, and evaluate the results.”

An advisory board led by former Education Minister Luc Ferry, in a September report to the government, recommended ethnic monitoring, as carried out in Britain and the United States, on a voluntary basis.

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