Society: Affirmative Action? Oui! at Long Last, France Takes a Page from America in Order to Manage Diversity-And Bring Minorities into Elite Schools

Newsweek International, April 12, 2004 | Go to article overview

Society: Affirmative Action? Oui! at Long Last, France Takes a Page from America in Order to Manage Diversity-And Bring Minorities into Elite Schools


Byline: Marie Valla

The young people of Vaulx-en-Velin once famously burned cars and threw stones at French police. That was 15 years ago, but for teenagers in this poor and largely immigrant suburb the future still offers little beside unemployment and crime. When your name is Mohammed and your skin is dark, a high-school diploma and a French passport mean little. Yet this year, for the first time, the town's high-school graduates have a real opportunity to join the French elite--thanks to a social import from America known as "affirmative action."

Yes, the winds of change are blowing in France, where the establishment has long believed that the republican ideal of equality (as in Liberte, Egalite , Fraternite ) would guarantee that people who deserved to would move up in society. Trouble is, since the 1950s the proportion of working-class and immigrant children studying in France's prestigious Grandes Ecoles has steadily declined. Meanwhile, the discontent in underprivileged neighborhoods riddled with joblessness, criminality and aggressive Muslim fundamentalism has grown. Everybody agrees that something must be done.

The man pointing the way is Richard Descoings, director of the Paris Institute of Political Sciences. Sciences Po, as it's known, is the jewel in the crown of French higher education. Presidents, ministers, CEOs and top TV anchors all go there. To promote social diversity, Descoings began signing agreements with high schools in underprivileged neighborhoods in 2001. Thanks to him, motivated students could apply by way of an oral examination, instead of taking the highly competitive writing test, although they have to meet the same graduation requirements five years on.

In a country where the census does not ask about ethnic origin or religious identity, the Sciences Po experiment has been condemned as worse than un-French. Though falling far short of formal quotas, it smacks of policies American universities long ago embraced to diversify and bring minorities into the mainstream. …

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