- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2005

PARIS — Rioting that engulfed depressed, largely immigrant suburbs made France painfully aware of its failure to fully integrate its minorities. But solutions are hindered by a paradox: Under French law, minorities don’t exist.

A nearly 30-year-old statute that forbids researchers, demographers and others from counting people by race, ethnic origin or religion had been meant as a safeguard for France’s cherished principle of equality.

But some people fear the idealism has blinded the nation to the realities of racial discrimination.

“In France, we have an ideal vision of society. … But to put actions in place, we need a method to count,” said Saliou Diallo, deputy mayor in charge of fighting discrimination in Evry, a suburb south of Paris hit by the rioting and arson attacks that erupted Oct. 27.

The 1978 law, aimed at protecting people from racial profiling, has roots in France’s shame over its collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, when Jews were marked with yellow stars and sent to death camps.

But the law fits neatly into France’s integration model, designed as a vast leveler for new citizens to adopt French ways within a generation — and lose their past.

As the recent riots by poor, predominantly Muslim youths of families from northern and western Africa made clear, outlawing discrimination doesn’t make it disappear.

Moreover, many from immigrant families are less than enthusiastic about embracing the secular culture of their adopted homeland.

Support is growing for the view that compiling data on ethnic minorities — carried out to an almost obsessive degree in the United States and Britain — can be a powerful tool in gauging the extent of social inequalities.

Under France’s model, there is no such thing as a second-generation French citizen, said Patrick Simon, a sociologist with the National Institute of Demographic Studies.

“The French model doesn’t know if you are black and doesn’t want to know,” he said.

Mr. Simon said the law must be adjusted to make it easier to collect information on minorities. For now, he uses indirect methods to skirt the restrictions.

While studying school segregation, his team used pupils’ foreign-sounding names — rather than their origins — to get needed data. Other demographers have used the mother language to uncover the origins of second-generation French citizens.

Herve Le Bras, a leading demographer and historian, argues that minorities face discrimination not because of their origins but because they stand out in a society in which most people are white.

Some French officials suggest using affirmative action to combat discrimination. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, a presidential hopeful, espouses “positive discrimination” based on ethnicity — unlike his boss, President Jacques Chirac, and his expected rival for the presidency in 2007, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

“Affirmative action is mainly aimed in taking into account the race and the religion. In our republic, everybody is equal and we don’t want to take into account the color of the skin or the religion,” Mr. de Villepin said in a CNN interview broadcast Tuesday.

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