After a week-long trip to the United States, ten members of France’s ANELD, an advocacy group representing elected local officials from ethnic and religious minorities, have returned home with a message: it’s time for France to compile statistics on its ethnically diverse population.
ANELD deals with issues related to ethnic diversity in France, including employment, equal rights and discrimination. Its members are elected officials in the suburbs of Paris, mainly of North African origin.
During their stay in Washington, D.C., the French delegation met with members of civil rights organisations like the National Urban League and Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, as well as numerous other representatives from both the public and private sectors.
The trip, which was largely funded by the French-American Foundation and the American Embassy, was geared toward studying how the US has dealt with challenging issues related to ethnic diversity within its own borders.
According to Leila Leghmara, ANELD’s treasurer and a trip participant, some of the American representatives they met with were surprised to learn that France does not keep statistics on its different ethnic populations.
“In the US they have statistics, which is something that is forbidden here [in France]”, she said. “Some people couldn’t understand that there were no statistics in France, so we had to explain”.
‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’
France – a country whose motto famously advocates liberty, equality and fraternity – has traditionally been loath to classify its citizens by ethnic categories. Ethnic statistics are forbidden by the country's constitution and frowned upon as a way of forcing people to identify with a set ethnic group.
However, critics say these numbers are necessary given the country's increasingly diverse ethnic landscape. According to ANELD members, statistics on France’s different ethnic groups could help combat feelings of discrimination.
It is not the first time the issue has arisen over the past decade. The controversy over ethnic statistics last surfaced in 2009, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy appointed the Committee for the Measurement of Diversity
, arguing that efforts to help minorities were hampered by a lack of data, and that he wanted to find a way to "measure the diversity of society."
The committee immediately drew strong criticism from anti-discrimination groups, academics and opposition politicians. Its report, published in April 2010, called for a "critical and responsible use of statistics" in combating discrimination, but stopped short of advocating the compilation of ethnic statistics.
Members of ANELD have since breathed fresh life into the debate. As Leghmara points out, their call for statistics comes at a time when questions of national identity and secularism have emerged as hot-button issues in the French political arena.
“[The members of ANELD] are all from different political parties – left-wing, right-wing and green – but we are all in agreement on the fact that the debates on secularism and national identity are contributing to breaking our society…These debates don’t help create a cohesive French society,” Leghmara said.
She added, “If we want to improve the situation of minorities in France, we have to be able to evaluate it…One way to create awareness is to show people the numbers”.
ANELD’s vision of breaking down French society into numbers has been quickly dismissed by the president of France’s High Council on Integration (Haut Conseil à l’Integration or HCI), Patrick Gaubert, who issued a statement on July 22
saying, “For the HCI, there is no need to count French citizens or residents by the community they belong to and/or racial categories to fight against discrimination”.
Kamel Hamza, ANELD's president, said that even on a purely observational level, the trip to Washington D.C. left him with the impression that the US was years ahead of France when it came to dealing with diversity.
“The person who greeted us from the Foreign Affairs department was an African American and his assistant was white. In France it’s usually the other way around. It really surprised us”, Hamza said.
“In France it’s possible [for people of different ethnicities to obtain high level positions] but only with the support of the right person. That’s the problem with France’s minorities – they don’t have access to the same networks as other groups”, he continued.
Hamza went on to describe an experience he had as a young man when he felt as though he had been discriminated against because of his ethnic background.
“The first time I went to a job interview, I was forced to justify my ethnic background. I had to go with my diploma from school, and prove that I was just like everyone else – that I wasn’t lazy or a delinquent,” he said. “There are two solutions to this problem – either you kill yourself or you decide to prove that you’re stronger – that you’re going to work three times as hard as anyone else”.
Leghmara says she feels as though her group has succeeded in some measure by reviving the issue as a serious debate, though she acknowledges that statistical data on France’s ethnic populations are still a long way off.
Members of ANELD are due to meet with the French commissioner for equal opportunities, Yazid Sabeg, on Monday to discuss a possible census. They say they plan to raise the issue of discrimination as a major topic in France’s forthcoming presidential election.
Echoing a question put to her by people she met on her trip to Washington D.C., Leghmara wondered out loud, “How can we correct or improve the situation if we have no picture of it?”
Photo above: commuters on a train bound for Paris' northern suburbs. © Rachel Holman.