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FRANCE: Noble Ignorance Fails the Minorities

Hilaire Avril

PARIS, Jun 4 2008 (IPS) - According to the French constitution, France has no minorities. French law makes it illegal to record citizens’ ethnic origin or religion. But in the face of mounting discrimination, France recently introduced corrective institutions. However, the system is still in its infancy.

After World War II, memories of the Vichy regime which collaborated with Nazi Germany, institutional racism, and the holocaust led the drafters of France’s constitution to outlaw the recording of people’s ethnic groups or origins.

In the eyes of French justice, one is simply French or foreign. And the national motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” applies to all French.

But today, this also means ethnic or religious statistics cannot be used for positive discrimination in favour of the most destitute.

There is increasing doubt about the government’s ability to correct what it cannot measure, particularly ethnic or religious prejudices. As the racially polarised riots of 2005 exposed in Paris’s poorer suburbs, there is a widening gap between official equality and the reality of every day life in many parts of the country.

In 2005, the French government therefore created the High Authority against Discrimination and for Equality (HALDE, in its French acronym). The institution’s mandate is to provide legal assistance to victims of discrimination, as well as to document the problem and promote best practices.

“The French model for integration is that of a melting pot, not a salad bowl,” Mayada Boulos, spokeswoman for HALDE told IPS. “That is to say, it has always rejected ‘communitarianism’ (the segmentation of citizens along ethnic or religious lines).”

Most Anglo-Saxon countries favour a “different but equal” approach to questions affecting national minorities. This allows authorities to draw statistical tools registering one’s ethnic origin, religion, or sexual orientation on a voluntary basis, and to design corrective policies.

On the contrary, Article I of the French Constitution states: “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic.” This is taken to mean that no French citizen can claim preferential access to employment, social housing and – until recently – education.

In order to prevent positive as well as negative discrimination, French law thus prohibits differential treatment based on a set of 18 criteria: adherence to a union, age, disability, ethnic, national or racial origin, family, situation, gender, genetic characteristics, health, mores, origin, physical appearance, political opinions, pregnancy, religion, sexual orientation, and surname.

Victims of such discrimination can address HALDE, which may advise the claimant, mediate with the culprit, and provide legal counsel should the case go to court.

A quick look at French social networking websites, a booming industry, shows registration forms systematically avert questions relating to a candidate’s religion or ethnic group. This is a marked difference from U.S. websites, or Indian matchmaking sites, where one is asked to detail his or her religion, region of origin, as well as caste in some cases.

But France’s many legal instruments aimed at fighting discrimination did not impress Gay J. McDougall, the United Nations Expert on Minority Issues who visited France in September 2007.

According to her findings, “racism is alive, insidious and clearly targeted at those ‘visible’ minorities of immigrant heritage, the majority of whom are French citizens.

“People who have worked hard, played by all the rules and truly believe in the principles of the French Republic are trapped in socially and geographically isolated urban ghettos, with unemployment in some areas over 40 percent. They feel discriminated against and rejected by rigid notions of French national identity to which they do not conform,” McDougall commented after a ten-day visit.

HALDE does not debate the gap between theory and practice. “French law offers decent protection against discrimination. The problem is its enforcement,” says Boulos.

Home of the 35-hour workweek, France is notoriously protective of labour rights. “Regardless,” says Boulos, “50 percent of the complaints HALDE received in 2007 related to employment. Of these, a third pertained to recruitment, and two-thirds to career progression.”

Some institutions have decided to take matters into their own hands. With a view to diversifying its student body, the Institute of Political Studies (better known as ‘Sciences-Po’ and alma mater to many a generation of French politicians) decided in 2001 to design a special selection process. Candidates residing in areas designated as under-privileged were to be admitted on account of their school grades rather than have to go through the traditional competitive exam.

The initial reaction from the public and among many students of the notoriously elitist university was lukewarm. Many decried what they perceived as unequal treatment. However, “the controversy the idea of this reform sparked in 2001 has yielded, in the space of a few years, to a broad consensus,” writes Cyril Delhay, responsible for the scheme which is now being emulated in several other universities.

“In this instance, positive discrimination was made possible by the use of individuals’ addresses, which identified them as residing in impoverished areas without recourse to criteria of ethnicity,” Boulos explains.

“Admittedly, this is only a start, but we should heed the warning by Trevor Phillips (head of the United Kingdom’s Commission for Racial Equality) that a ‘multiculturalist’ approach amounted to ‘sleepwalking into segregation’,” adds Boulos.

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