Should France Count Its Minority Population?

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A homeless person surrounded by police in Paris, France

It's news to no one that France's blighted unemployment-ravaged suburban housing projects have disproportionately high black and Arab populations. It's also no scoop that those same two ethnic groups are under-represented in the nation's elite schools, corporate management ranks and political establishment. The French themselves are acutely aware that racial discrimination is a problem — and since the 2005 suburban riots have appeared eager to do something to remedy it.

A good place to start might be figuring out the exact size and location of France's ethnic groups. Except that every time someone proposes including ethnic data within national statistics all hell breaks lose. The accepted wisdom in France, it seems, is that acknowledging difference, and naming it, is bigotry itself. (See pictures of Paris expanding.)

"Ethnic statistics, affirmative action [and] quotas are caricatures," fumed Fadela Amara, France's Secretary of State for Urban Affairs, who before entering government led a civil rights movement advancing minority and feminist causes. The daughter of Algerian immigrants, Amara sees official ethnic statistics as dangerous, not helpful. "Our republic must not become a mosaic of communities," she says, rejecting calls to add race to the gender, age and occupational categories contained in official data researchers use to study French society. "No one should again have to wear a yellow star."

Linking the ethnic make-up of a multiracial nation to genocide may sound like hyperbole elsewhere, but the French know that tinkering with the founding principles and universal values of the nation was central to some of the ugliest episodes in the country's history. The French constitution proudly declares the country "an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic [that] assures equality before the law for all its citizens, without distinction of origin, of race, or religion". That gender- and color-blindness, national ideology holds, protects minority populations by ignoring the differences that divide them into often mutually hostile groups in societies like the U.S. and U.K. Indeed, few words are uttered in France with the same disdain as communitarisme: the proud identification with a component group within wider society so beloved in multi-cultural nations. (See pictures of 40 years of Concorde.)

France's indivisible ideology is noble in theory — but often mocked by reality. There are plenty of periods in French history where racial and religious discrimination were rife — from the colonial era to cooperation with Nazi occupiers. The 2005 rioting that spread across France's suburban housing projects — and the international media attention that it drew — provided another reminder that something was seriously wrong in the land of fraternité et egalité. That unrest seems to have finally provoked a period of soul searching in France.

That means re-examining some of France's founding principles. President Nicolas Sarkozy, for one, has broken ancient taboos by suggesting France study American-style equal opportunity, quotas and the use of ethnic data within official statistics to get a more accurate picture of the nation's face. "There are two Frances," Arab-French businessman Yazid Sabeg told the daily Libération. "One wants to look things in the face — meaning the way demographics in this country have changed. The other is conservative France, which is prone to immobility in the name of largely artificial equality." (See pictures of France's Bastille Day celebrations.)

Tapped by Sarkozy in November to suggest ways of mending the nation's race relations, Sabeg has proposed compiling and analyzing racial statistics as one of several ways of making the nation's anti-discrimination initiatives and laws stronger and more easily applied.

But that's prompted a backlash from opponents who believe the goal should be getting France to practice the color-blind promise of the Republic — not swapping it for U.S.-style multiculturalism and affirmative action. "Even if it's out to do the right thing, positive discrimination remains discrimination, and classifying people by race and ethnicity is in a manner itself racism," argues Malek Boutih, former head of France's seminal civil rights group S.O.S. Racism, and now a member of the Socialist Party's national bureau. "You don't surrender your principles because they are being abused in practice, but rather find ways to shape reality to your principles. You can't give into one discrimination by creating counter-discrimination."

That's a view widely held across French society. But in a sign of change, more and more voices are speaking up to support Sarkozy's and Sabeg's ideas. The number of minority characters on television, film and in the media generally has noticeably increased over the past few years. People in other industries have begun pointing out the practical problems created by the legal ban on including ethnic data in official statistics. "From a sociological point of view, I'm for it, just as I'd be inclined to include any qualitative statistic as revelatory and essential to social, political and economic evolution as race is," says Dominique Reynié, president of the Foundation for Political Innovation, a think tank in Paris. "It's not just a valuable tool — it's one that may offer ways of combating discrimination."

It would also at last let France see its real face clearly. France's highly centralized government and top-to-bottom administration can keep tabs on myriad ways its 64.1 million population is evolving except in terms of its racial make-up. The prohibition on using ethnic or religious data — even if volunteered — means France can do no better than estimate that its population includes 4 to 7 million Arabs, 3 to 5 million blacks, some 1.5 million Asians, and around 600,000 Jews. (See TIME's pictures of the week.)

Using the highest of those estimates, those four categories represent nearly 22% of France's population — a group that includes arguably the biggest victims of racism and discrimination. The vast majority of French people want to change that. The question is how.

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