Unlike the United States, where affirmative action has been debated for decades, the argument over it has only just begun in France.
It is currently illegal for institutions to collect data regarding a person’s ethnic origins. The law dates back to the end of World War II and was inspired by the persecution of the Jews, explains Dejane Ereau, deputy chief editor of Respect, a quarterly magazine dedicated to acceptance and diversity.
But in France, with its roots and pride in Gallic culture, a name betrays a person’s origins far quicker than any survey.
“It is against the law to ask one’s nationality or to count ethnicities in the census,” Ereau says. “So they have now begun to discuss using anonymous resumes with no name or age, to avoid discriminating against any applicant who doesn’t have a French name.”
The French government itself employs only one minister with a North African name, though it is estimated that North Africans make up nearly 10 percent of the population (no official statistics exist).
While the government has been behind on this issue wracking nearly every sector, French business has taken a leap ahead. A syndicate of advocacy groups developed a charter in 2004, “La Charte de la Diversité.”
There are currently 175 signatories to the charter, including some French business and industry giants, as well as SNCF, the powerful national French rail association.
The charter is not legally binding but is simply a call for awareness to avoid discriminatory hiring and promotion practices at the expense of ethnic minorities. It doesn’t call for quotas, either.
“Ethnic origins will never be the criteria for employment. Our action seeks to fight discrimination, not to add new forms of discrimination,” the charter states.
Despite these tentative steps, the sting of discrimination is felt in no uncertain terms in the ethnically diverse low-income suburbs of nearly all of France’s cities.
On a recent night in the southern city of Toulouse, one of the cities most damaged by the recent rioting, nearly a dozen police officers descend on a small group of young men whose skin color and street corner betray them as children of North African parentage. They’ve been asked by visiting reporters to come down from their apartments in a monolith that resembles so many of the tenements that house minorities. A community leader steps in to explain to the police that the youths are only talking with the journalists.
“You see, we have no right to gather on the street even to talk,” explains Riad Zeghab, an organizer in the low-income neighborhood where he resolves disputes between neighbors. There are more than five buildings each, housing more than 200 families.
He has spent his whole life in this community and says the recent bout of violence was not the first. He’s certain it will not be the last in the minorities’ fight for equal treatment in France.
Zeghab recalls an incident when police killed a young man and, trying to keep the peace, he stood between 50 police on one side and 50 angry youths on the other.
Munir, a 20-year-old of Algerian descent who would only give his first name, tells the reporters that it’s not just the joblessness that affects him and his friends, but “it’s the way that people look at you in the train. Look how I’m dressed,” he says, pointing at his wool jacket with buttons up the front. “Do I look like someone who is going to attack you?”
Munir attests to what has been shown by a well-publicized investigative research project: That youths like him have used false names to respond to hundreds of job announcements. “If my name is Jacques or Pierre, I can get a job, but if my name is Mohammed or Karim, it’s a lost cause,” he says.
Though the recent violence and vandalism in the low-income suburbs of nearly every major French city have triggered a national dialogue and lighted a spark of hope among minority citizens, a certain cynicism persists.
Even as President Jacques Chirac called for all of France to remember that the youths involved in the violence are “sons and daughters of the Republic,” he also made it clear that punishment will be meted out to those who have broken the laws of the nation.
While French business and industry have taken a step forward with the Diversity Charter, the French government took another step backward in Feb. 2005 by passing a law in the National Assembly that called for French public education to teach the “positive role” of France’s history in the colonies.
The new law further incensed minority communities that already feel disenfranchised and underrepresented. While the Diversity Charter is a step in the right direction, many feel that without popular education and social re-examination nothing will change the exclusive attitudes of the French mainstream.
“Even if we institute affirmative action, there will still be problems in schools,” says Hortense Nouvion, founder and publisher of Cité Black, a biweekly magazine covering news and culture from a black French perspective.
Nouvion, who is French-born and is raising her two sons in Paris, says that in France, “black equals foreigner. People ask me, ‘Where are you from? How did you learn to speak French?’”
“The solution is to teach kids who they are, why they’re here, that they didn’t drop from a parachute,” she says. “They have to be included in the history.”
Brahmani Houston works for New California Media, an association of over 700 print, broadcast and online ethnic media organizations and a PNS project.