Ethnicity, according to one British commentator, is to the French what sex was to the Victorians. It is Yazid Sabeg's job to change all that. President Nicolas Sarkozy appointed the Algerian-born business leader as France's diversity czar last December, charging him with combatting discrimination in the country that harbors Europe's largest Muslim population. With unemployment among the country's minority youth at around four times the national average, all agree that something must be done in order to combat racial inequality; however, there is little consensus on how the state should proceed.
Unlike the United States and Britain, both of which espouse policies of multiculturalism, France maintains a strong universalist tradition that denies the distinction of citizens by ethnic origin. Indeed, French law currently forbids the classification of French citizens by race, ethnicity', or religion. But Sabeg plans to do away with that. He hopes not only to implement policies which allow the counting of ethnic minorities but also to institute US-style affirmative action programs. This announcement has elicited strong reactions across the political spectrum, even dividing human rights and minority defense groups. The ongoing debate indicates that Mr. Sabeg's greatest challenge will be developing a culture and a vocabulary of race relations that remain faithful to French republican principles. Repealing the ban on ethnic and religious statistics will be indispensable to developing such a constructive dialogue. However, emphasizing an approach of affirmative action risks poisoning the debate.
While previous governments have defended the ban on ethnic statistics on the grounds of the foundational republican principle of equality, the law originates in the atrocities committed against Jews under the Vichy Regime. Such abuses are unlikely to occur today, but the inclusion of ethnicity or religion in official records still poses an important threat. Some have asserted that President Sarkozy's activism in favor of diversity may serve in part to mask his controversial immigration policy. The Ministry for Immigration and National Identity, which he created upon his ascension to the presidency, has furiously pursued targets for the expulsion of undocumented immigrants and has instituted strict immigration controls.
Many immigrant defense groups fear that Sabeg's policies will only further toughen Sarkozy's already stringent immigration laws. Their core concern is that the government will use its statistics to include ethnicity in the records of individuals. There exists a serious danger that the police would use such data to conduct immigration raids.
For opponents to the law, this is just one example of how collection of data on ethnicity could exacerbate racial discrimination rather than decrease it. Indeed, including references to ethnicity and religion in official records would be entirely contradictory to the French social model. More importantly, affirmative action policies developed from such a system fail to resolve the fundamental issues at hand. While the country's assimilationist system has revealed many shortcomings, France's large population of immigrants remains better integrated than those in the Netherlands and arguably even Britain.
Meanwhile, Sabeg and his supporters argue that by continuing to turn a blind eye to race, France cannot appropriately address growing social inequalities. …