(The Root) — When new French President François Hollande's cabinet was unveiled on May 16, the headline in all the French media was gender parity: 17 of the 34 posts went to women, a first for a French government.
What the commentators or the news stories didn't mention was the ethnic composition of the cabinet — three blacks and three Arabs. They also failed to point out that Christiane Toubira, the new minister of justice, is the first black person to hold that position, something American news organizations would have routinely covered.
The silence reflected France's ambiguity about race. The country keeps no official racial statistics, and even mentioning someone's race or ethnic origin is considered bad form. The reasons are deeply rooted in France's ideal of a "colorblind" republicanism — and its shameful collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. But Americans suffering from racial fatigue should look carefully before embracing the French model.
Because there are no official numbers, no one knows for sure how many blacks or Arabs or other minorities there are among France's 65 million residents. (Estimates run from 10 to 15 percent.) There is no way to measure how opportunity is distributed or how minorities are faring in schools or private employment. There is no way to tell if blacks or Arabs or whites are treated differently by the judicial system or during the frequent police ID checks on the Paris Metro.
Americans are accustomed to seeing statistics by race on employment, income, education and poverty. National and state policies are often based on responses to these statistics. For example, the No Child Left Behind law was aimed at closing a documented achievement gap between white children and those who are black and brown. But France passed a law in 1978 barring the government from collecting all racial and ethnic data.
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.
To this American in Paris, the status of minorities seems like America in the 1950s but without the brutality of enforced segregation. There is a palpable sense of frustration among minorities. "It can't go on like this," says a black business leader. Protests, like one on the Champs Elysées against perfumer Guerlain in 2010, have become more frequent. The diversity of Hollande's cabinet is one response to the new pressures.
There are voices that advocate collecting statistics and instituting some form of affirmative action. But there is also a lot of pushback. In 2008, Sarkozy appointed businessman Yazid Sabeg, a self-made millionaire and son of Algerian immigrants, as his diversity commissioner. Sabeg argued statistics were essential to define the problems and measure progress, but the political establishment — left and right — united to block his proposals.
At a packed forum on equality near the Champs Elysées on May 21, Marc Cheb Sun, editor-in-chief of Respect, a French multiethnic magazine, complained that even the terms used to define the issues were negative. If you wanted to turn someone off to affirmative efforts, he said, "I couldn't think of a worse term than 'positive discrimination.' "
Joel Dreyfuss is The Root's senior editor-at-large.