Alain Dolium is almost an oxymoron: He's a black French politician. A businessman and candidate for France's National Assembly in 2012, Dolium is indeed a rare breed. Despite the country's rich mix of whites, blacks from Africa and the Caribbean, and an Arab-Muslim population of more than 5 million, the French political establishment is almost exclusively white.
There is currently just one black elected official representing a mainland constituency in France's National Assembly, and no nonwhite mayors or other local elected officials in the nation of 63 million. Dolium, a businessman whose parents are from the French Caribbean, is an outspoken critic of France's virtual taboo against discussions of race and racism. "We have a giant hypocrisy," he said in an interview with The Root. "People who bring up race issues are seen as anti-republic.”
Yet, says Dolium, social, political and economic power is concentrated in one community (France's white majority). One reason, he says, is a mind-set that defines France firmly as it once was. "France has created an imaginary country. We still refer to 'our ancestors, the Gauls,' " he says. "The stream feeding France — the Maghreb, Africa and Antilles — is rejected by the French."
Dolium, 43, was born in Paris and raised in the industrial suburb of Malakoff. He attended the Ecole Supérieur de Commerce in Amiens, north of Paris, and graduate school in Montreal. He is an entrepreneur: CEO and co-founder of Obad, a mobile marketing company with offices in New York and Paris. He is a member of Mouvement Démocrate, France's centrist third party, popularly known as MoDem, and has been put forward as the head of the party's candidate list for the Paris region in next year's elections. If MoDem ends up winning — or, more likely, forms a coalition with the winning party — Dolium could be a candidate for a cabinet post.
Not surprisingly, some pundits and media have referred to Dolium as the "French Obama." He rejects the label as a trap, an attempt to reduce his candidacy to his color, rather than addressing his political positions. Dolium says that the French political elite are not ready for diversity — although he believes that ordinary French citizens will vote for a black candidate.
He is trying to avoid the fate of other high-profile blacks in French politics. When Sarkozy became president in 2007, he named several minorities to his cabinet. One was Rama Yade, a woman of African origin who was appointed secretary of state for human rights. Yade's standing was soon undercut by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who declared that human rights were already an integral element of French foreign policy.
Yade earned Sarkozy's disapproval by publicly taking stances counter to his policies and, finally, for declining his request that she run for the European parliament. In 2009 she was demoted to the sports portfolio. In his last cabinet shuffle, Sarkozy named Yade France's ambassador to UNESCO — further marginalizing her — despite her high standing in public opinion polls.
"Most of the time, black men and women are sought out by the parties in power, who put them in very high positions," says Dolium. "But they have not had any opportunity to build a political base, so when they leave government, they also leave political life." Dolium has avoided party assignments traditionally doled out to blacks — youth, sports, troubled neighborhoods — to focus on economic development and innovation. "I am one of rare black politicians who are dealing with national issues," he says.
Dolium believes that France needs to broaden economic opportunity and make sure that its masses of young people are properly educated. "We graduate 150,000 kids every year who have not acquired fundamentals in language and math," he warns. "They will fail." He describes his country as "determinist" with little real social mobility. "You become who you are on the basis of where you were born," says Dolium. 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, he says.
France has tried to compensate with a tentative embrace of affirmative action called "positive discrimination." Some grandes écoles have altered their admissions process to draw more applicants from poorer families. Dolium says that more-vigorous efforts are needed to broaden opportunities in France. He notes that the children of the most privileged French attend just 100 elementary schools out of 16,000 in France, assuring their rise through the ranks. "It's clear that if you tell me where you are born and what elementary school you attend, I can tell you if you will be successful," he says.
Efforts to measure minority progress and discrimination are hampered by a ban on collecting racial data. Some minority leaders have lobbied for gathering such statistics, but Sarkozy is said to be opposed. "If we want to reduce the inequality of opportunity, which is a fact, we have to know more precisely who the victims are, why and how," says Dolium.
France has tried to encourage innovation by offering tax incentives to large companies that invest in startups. But Dolium says that these laws fail because they are administered by people who understand only big business. The result: "The laws asphyxiate innovation." Obviously, he believes that his own entrepreneurial experience can help address these failings. The first step will be the 2012 elections. If he succeeds, he might begin to like the "French Obama" tag.
Joel Dreyfuss is the managing editor of The Root.