France: Affirmative action through social criteria

France24 report includes video.


Bolstered by Barack Obama's election, French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to boost French 'affirmative action' programmes. But his commitment to increasing diversity is limited by the principle of equality enshrined in the French Constitution, which makes it impossible to collect data based on race, or even to count minorities in census data.

Although racial discrimination is illegal in France, there is nothing in the law that compels companies, selective universities or political institutions to include people from ethnic minorities. In practice, it can be extremely difficult for minorities to break into the ranks of elite schools, politics, and business.

A commission led by former European Council President Simone Veil, charged with examining the possibility of modifying the Constitution to allow for racial integration measures, handed in a report Wednesday arguing against any constitutional tweaks, and favouring anti-discrimination measures based on social criteria instead.

A fervent advocate of bringing US-inspired affirmative action to France, Sarkozy was forced to change course. During a lengthy speech pronounced at the venerable Polytechnique engineering college shortly after receiving the Veil report, the president pinpointed the "ever-widening gap between the diversity of French society and the social and cultural homogeneity of the elites produced by our education system", but stopped short of announcing any legislation explicitly favouring people from ethnic minorities.

Instead, he focused on measures requiring preparatory classes to get into elite graduate schools to raise the number of underprivileged students on scholarship to 30% of total admissions. Since ethnic minorities are over-represented in poorer social circles, these measures are expected to increase the number of blacks and Arabs in elite institutions.

Sarkozy also named Algerian-born industrialist Yazid Sabeg High Commissioner for Diversity and Equal Chances. This self-made man and virulent affirmative-action advocate has been charged with implementing these reforms before March 2009.


Source: France24 (English)

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