- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2007

PARIS — France’s comfortable image of itself as a colorblind society — already weakened by race riots in 2005 — received a further blow last week when a new survey found that a majority of French blacks believe they face discrimination in daily life.

Coinciding with a disturbing television documentary about living as a black person in France, the survey by the TNS-Sofres polling agency is the first of its kind and is galvanizing public debate just weeks before presidential election.

“This is going to change things,” predicted Patrick Lozes, president of the Representative Council of Black Associations, an advocacy group that commissioned the survey. “Until now, blacks have never been counted in this country. And I have always said that blacks who aren’t counted don’t count.”

There is no legal way to count France’s black population. Census-takers and other government statisticians are barred by law from compiling figures based on religion or race. But the poll, which appears lawful, suggests France’s cherished values of “egalite” and “fraternite” remain elusive goals for the nation’s estimated 5 million blacks.

Of the 13,000 blacks surveyed, 61 percent said they experienced at least one racist incident within the past year. More than one in 10 said they were frequently the target of racism that ranged from verbal aggression to difficulty finding housing or jobs.

“The findings don’t surprise me at all,” said Mouloud Aounit, president of the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples, an anti-discrimination group. “Racism exists in our daily life. Look at the Senate, the National Assembly, regional councils. Ethnic representation is totally absent.”

“Racism isn’t daily, but I face it from time to time,” agreed security guard Jacques Bassong, 36, who moved to France from his native Cameroon in 1979. “A little bit at work, at government offices, even in the stores. Some French are more racist than others, but on average, it’s bearable.”

Until now, much of the hand-wringing about minorities has focused on France’s estimated 5 million ethnic Arabs.

The seething anger among young “beurs,” French-born children of North African immigrants, grabbed the spotlight in the fall of 2005, when riots spread across France. But it was the accidental deaths of two black African teenagers, reportedly while fleeing police, which sparked the violence in the first place.

Today, only 10 of 577 National Assembly members are black, and all were elected from overseas territories. Blacks remain similarly underrepresented in the private sector, being less likely than whites to find jobs and to be promoted when they do.

Last week, France’s Canal+ channel aired a two-part documentary, “In the Skin of a Black,” a local spin on the U.S. reality series “Black. White,” which aired early last year on the FX cable-TV network.

The French program tracked a series of small and large humiliations faced by members of a white French family that, using heavy makeup, had swapped places with a black family.

“It’s important to show to our society what it doesn’t see or know,” said Mr. Lozes, who wants the government to adopt affirmative-action policies.

French politicians stumping in this year’s presidential and legislative races are beginning to grasp the potential power of the minority vote, particularly since a voter-registration drive has been stunningly successful in many low-income areas where minorities live.

Even Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose far-right National Front party opposes most immigration, is reaching out with a poster featuring a black woman making the thumbs-down sign and the slogan: “Left-Right — They’ve broken everything.”

Mr. Lozes’ organization has not ruled out fielding a black presidential candidate for the coming election. But France has no nationally known prospect comparable to Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, on the horizon.

“France is in no way ready to elect a Mohammed … as president of the Republic, unfortunately,” anti-discrimination activist Mr. Aounit said.

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