Why France Can't Say the M-Word
The country's lack of statistics on minorities means there's no way to grade it on diversity.
Because there is no ethnic data, attempts to address racial disparities depend on anecdotal evidence. Periodically, a French news organization does a blind test of discrimination in employment. Résumés with identical credentials are sent to major French companies. Invariably, those with French-sounding names are far more likely to be invited to interviews than those with African or Arab names or addresses in the tough exurban "banlieues" that surround major French cities. "You become who you are on the basis of where you were born," says Alain Dolium, a tech entrepreneur and centrist politician of Caribbean origin. He says a student from a working-class background is 16 times less likely to attend an elite grande école (the country's top universities) than is one from a middle-class family.
When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, one French paper lamented, "Where Is Our Obama?" In a country accustomed to lecturing the U.S. on race relations, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was left to sputter in a BBC interview: "Give us time." There is just one nonwhite member of France's 577-member assembly who does not represent an overseas territory. But it's not just at the top of the political pyramid that blacks and other minorities are missing. There is no equivalent to Kenneth Chenault (CEO of American Express) or Indra Nooyi (CEO of PepsiCo) in French corporate hierarchy or a military parallel to Gen. Colin Powell (former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) or a high-ranking judge like Clarence Thomas or Sonia Sotomayor.
But minorities play a large role in French entertainment and sports. Former tennis star Yannick Noah (father of Chicago Bulls player Joakim Noah), now a popular singer, is regularly voted the French's favorite personality. French Moroccan comedian Jamel Debbouze packs the arenas and the movie theaters. Last month Omar Sy, whose parents are African, won a César, France's Oscar, for his role as the black caregiver to a white paraplegic (François Cluzet) in Les Intouchables, which set box-office records. His award was the first to a black actor.
Areas of France with heavy concentrations of minorities voted heavily against Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential elections. Sarkozy had talked tough about "scum" after the 2005 "banlieue riots." In his desperate bid to hold on to power in this year's presidential campaign, he tacked hard to the right, proposing stringent requirements for potential immigrants, including a French-language test. No surprise that on the night Hollande was declared the winner, his supporters packed the historic Bastille square of Paris, some waving Algerian, Moroccan and other national flags.