Law in Contemporary Society

Constructing Black France: Thoughts about the US model of affirmative action.

Constructing Black France. That was the title of the conference I went to a few days ago, organized by French/Black people which gathered several scholars, political activists as well as over-achieved minority individuals to promote and advocate the cause of minorities in france, and especially the Black one through affirmative action, quotas – should I say ‘critical mass’?- to improve the visibility of minorities.

The idea kind of seduced me, for several reasons. As part of a ‘visible minority’ in France, I took a great pleasure during my con law classes to learn the history of minorities and their struggle to get legal recognition throughout the history. I realized how France was lagging in terms of affirmative action, and I was really excited that some people were finally determined to press on the politicians to improve the situation. But I eventually got skeptical about their ideas.

France, a seculiar country that still refuses ethnic statistics

Nicolas Sarkozy, years before his election as President, was the first politician to press for affirmative action in every domains. Forbidden in France, ethnic statistics would have given a more objective sense of what are the real issues, and especially how big they are. We still ignore how many blacks, arabs, asians or latinos we are in France, but the disparities between the different communities ‘are’ huge, although based de facto on subjective feelings. I had the chance to go to a top high school, and then do my classe preparatoire in an even more selecive section. I was the only ‘minority’student. No black, no Latino, White French people everywhere, and after having been confronted to this lack of diversity, I felt really supportive to any kind of affirmative action program that would be developed, and especially in the educational field so that we could reduce the disparities as early as possible. The question about affirmative action is totally recent in France. People are reluctant to any kind of support, hold in high esteem meritocracy and unfortunately, our constitution is not as protective as the American one. Nowhere you would find the equivalent of equal protection in the 14th amendment. Moreover, the action can only be taken through the political branch, because we do not have any equivalent of the U.S Supreme Court that would order any kind of desegregation or uphold a substantive university’s program of affirmative action. The representatives of the CRAN, among others, considered that America was the best example to follow, and, unsurprisingly, that we needed a Black president like B. Obama in our country. I was pretty ok with them, although Obama is technically not black but rather mixed. They also seemed to forget the fact that affirmative action was justified by (1)history and (2) the necessity of diversity, and that these interests could not be totally transferred in a country such ours.

Colonization = slavery?

Two different patterns of history. The US affirmative action example cannot be a model for any country given the partiucluarity of the US history. They argued that the two histories are similar, because in both minorities groups have been persecuted, discriminated and exploited. Would history be a compelling and legitimate reason to justify a similar policy as the one applied in the US? I don’t think so. Yes, French colonization left an open wounding in the minorities’ counscious, as strong as the US one. But we cannot compare both patterns. While African Americans suffered on the US territory, minorities’ ancesters technically did not. Besides, there were several degrees of colonization. While Algeria was the first colony of France, Morocco and Tunisia were mere protectorates. Then, according to their thesis , Algerians should be treated more favorably because they would have supposedly suffered more than Moroccans or Tunisians. Clearly, the concept of race would not make any sense at all, because all three of them are ethnically Arabs. Diversity was also argued as an emergency. France is indeed lagging in this area. The first black t.v speaker was appointed 2 years ago. The first Arab Minister-Justice- was appointed in 2007, as well as the first African American- Human Rights and Foreign Affairs-. Sadly, symbols are missing in France. But this feeling is only empirical, and a lot of minorities are succeeding in their own lives without being the subject of attention. Thus, until ethnical data could clearly show that minorities are less successful than mainstream French and constitute a legitimate and unquestionable evidence, Iam not sure how diversity could be upheld. So what should we do? Should we let racism and discriminations survive, or be fought with American ideals ?

The future of affirmative action in the US: race v. social ?

To cut a French cheese, you need a French knife, not a US one. I am myself very concerned with problems of underepresentation of minorities in France, as well as racism and discrimination, although I would for the moment consider myself as blessed. But I think these people are wrong: France cannot set up an affirmative action policy that would be based on race. A much more efficient and legitimate way to tackle the evil would be to use the economic standard as a criteria. Help the poor, not the black or the arabs, just because they are so. It will have two main results: First we would end up by helping the minorities we want to help, because the economic and social situation is highly correlated to race. Besides, we would avoid what the US is now facing as a perverse effect of its policy, ie helping, through this device, middle class/ well-off/educated families.

I do think affirmative action in France is highly necessary, but should not be based on a racial criteria, not only because it would be silly of us from an historical point of view, but also because the time we get to something serious, the US would have modified their affirmative action policy, as O’Connor suggested in her opinion in 2003: ‘The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today’. (Grutter). While an African American figure has just been elected president of the USA, I am of the opinion that such a change will happen years before this period of time. Will it mean that we are about to consider poor people of the US as a suspect class? If France ends up by developing affirmative action based on such a mutable feature, will the U.S, for once, follow? Class, class, I need your thoughts.

-- KamelB - 17 May 2009

  • I think this is an interesting and valuable beginning. It gets the issues out. Tighter organization and the offering of a coherent argument seems to me one draft away. I assume that argument, like that of the post-racialists in the US, will be about directing government effort according to poverty rather than race. The manifest difficulties with that approach, which are not hidden from you anymore than they are from me, will then remain to be dealt with. It is not conceivable that the French would be willing to elect a person of North African, let alone sub-Saharan, descent as President of the Republic, no matter how perfect his accent. Discussion of racism as though it were merely a form of hatred directed at the poor would be incoherent, and social policy for dealing with racism on that basis would not be very useful.

  • If you can go that far, you might be able to take on the real difference between the two societies. US society is built of people who chose to be here, with the exception of the people about whom we are discussing how the government should structure social life to deal with the consequences of their forcible inclusion, and an aboriginal population which—though our treatment of its rights raises every sort of moral problem, including a history of virulent racism—is tiny. The "hexagon" that is France, however, is a forcible amalgamation of a number of separate societies, each of which has been short-changed for generations by the central authority centered around Paris. The overwhelming effort of that State has been to declare everyone within it "French," and to inhibit any sense of particular identity, hence the refusal to make ethnic identifications or be responsible for acceptance of cultural pluralism. The real enemy of racial dignity in the form in which it has been sought in the United States, and in other places around the world, is the absurd myth of French identity. But consideration of that idea would require precisely entertaining precisely the possibility your last paragraph denies, that a French knife might ever be the wrong tool to wield altogether in trying to understand France,


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r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:42:41 - IanSullivan
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