Breaking down barriers at Paris elite school
France is taking a second look at education prospects for its black and Arab minorities that would allow them to rise to the top.PARIS - By her own admission, Houria Khemissi was an exception at her high school in a drab Paris suburb.
While her friends agonised over final exams, she cruised through the written tests and set her sights higher.
So when a teacher suggested she apply to one of France's ivy league schools, Khemissi jumped at the chance, certain that a degree from the Paris Institute of Political Studies - or Sciences-Po as it is known - would be her ticket to success.
"At my school, the goal was getting a high school diploma," said Khemissi, a smiling, confident 21-year-old who grew up in the grim housing estates of La Courneuve, north of Paris.
"It's not easy to be far-sighted when you live in the suburbs. But I just didn't see myself going to work after high school."
For decades, Sciences-Po has been the seedbed for France's elite, counting among its alumni President Nicolas Sarkozy, his predecessor Jacques Chirac, several cabinet ministers and a host of executives from leading companies.
Tucked away on a side street on Paris' Left Bank, Sciences-Po has also for the past eight years pried open the door to France's overwhelmingly white establishment by taking in students from the high-immigrant suburbs.
The focus of much attention after the suburbs exploded in rioting in 2005, the equal opportunities programme at the prestigious Paris school is once again at the forefront of debate following Barack Obama's rise to the White House.
Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, attended Harvard law school and was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, a journal of legal scholarship.
France is taking a second look at education prospects for its black and Arab minorities that would allow them to rise to the top.
In partnership with 62 high schools in working-class neighbourhoods, Sciences Po taps the best young minds from the French suburbs through a special admissions track.
Candidates bypass the gruelling two-day entrance exam, known as the "concours," that is the gateway - some would say gatekeeper - to France's elite schools and instead undergo an oral exam.
The daughter of an Algerian single mother who raised her two children on a factory worker's salary, Khemissi managed to win over the admissions jury with her 45-minute exposé on how the media portrays anti-Semitism.
Fellow student Aime Dushimire, whose family fled Rwanda during the 1994 mass killings, presented his views on how ethnic groups can reconcile after the atrocities of genocide.
"I love a challenge," grinned Dushimire, 20, who attended a string of schools in Kenya, Ivory Coast and France after he fled his home country.
Once they are admitted, the students - who numbered 17 in the first year and 118 for the 2008 class - enroll in the same classes and are judged on the same criteria.
But for some in France, the special admissions track is an affront to firmly-held principles of equality for all.
"In France, we have republican equality, which means everyone gets the same chance without special treatment," said Sebastien Janicot, the president of the right-wing UNI student union at Sciences-Po.
"That's the principle behind the concours: everyone gets the same exam and the corrections are anonymous so in the end it's the result that counts," said Janicot.
Critics of the concours argue it favours a privileged group whose knowledge is firmly rooted in French traditional schooling, relying on a specific set of cultural and academic references.
The student union took Sciences-Po to court over the special admissions programme when it was launched in 2001, charging it was discriminatory and demanding it be dismantled.
A court ruled that it did not grant special discriminatory treatment to applicants but did order some minor adjustments.
After campaigning on a promise to push for diversity, Sarkozy last month announced new measures to promote minorities at elite schools, in business and in the media.
"We are going to throw open the doors of places where tomorrow's elite are trained," said Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant.
A government plan to be presented in March will spell out measures, but Sarkozy has said elite schools should be ready to reserve up to 30 percent of their places for first-year students from underprivileged backgrounds.
"France has changed enormously over the past 30 years," said Cyril Delhay, coordinator of the equal opportunities programme at Sciences-Po.
"For some who are now successful, it is hard for them to imagine that the education system that contributed to their sucess may not be the best," he said.