Sarkozy to ‘open elite' to black and Arab minorities
New measures announced by the president will allow ethnic minorities to gain easier access to France's elite higher education institutes or "grandes ecoles," civil service and the top echelons of business.
PARIS – President Nicolas Sarkozy promised Wednesday to open up France's political and business elite to its black and Arab minorities, unveiling plans for a major national push on equal opportunities.
Barack Obama's election to the White House as the United States' first black leader has held up a mirror to France's record on integration.
Despite being home to one of Europe's biggest black communities and its largest Arab-Muslim minority, France is still ruled by an overwhelmingly white establishment and unemployment is at its highest in immigrant suburbs.
Speaking before the elite Polytechnique science and engineering school outside Paris, Sarkozy warned promoting diversity was "not an option, but an obligation" to French society as it heads into the 21st-century.
"We cannot ignore the ever bigger gap between the diversity of French society, and the social and cultural sameness of the elites that our education system produces," Sarkozy said.
"We cannot ignore that our selection process bars whole parts of society from reaching positions of leadership."
Sarkozy announced a raft of measures to get more minorities into France's elite higher education institutes or "grandes ecoles," as well as into the civil service and the top echelons of business.
From next year, children eligible for scholarships - a majority of whom are of immigrant background - will be offered special tuition to compete in the entry exams for the best schools.
By 2010, 30 percent of places in the preparatory classes for "grandes ecoles" should go to scholarship children, from an average of around 20 percent now and as little as 0.5 percent in some cases.
France prides itself on being a colour-blind nation offering equal rights for anyone who becomes French and blends into the mainstream.
But France's 2005 suburb riots, which exposed the social and economic marginalisation of black and Arab youths, have spurred the political elite into repeated promises of action.
Sarkozy said the state should set the example, by throwing open civil service recruitment to youths from minorities.
He also urged all political parties to commit to a diversity charter and to file annual reports on their efforts to promote equal opportunities. He urged the public broadcaster France Television to take "examplary" action.
On the business front, Sarkozy said a new "diversity" award would reward best practice in fighting discrimination, and that the state would consider withholding public contracts from companies that fail to act.
The government will also ask 100 major French companies to bring in anonymous resumes, to combat discrimination against foreign-sounding names.
French businessman Yazid Sabeg, who is of Algerian origin, was named government commissioner for equal opportunities and diversity, charged with drawing up an action plan by March.
Promoting diversity is a minefield in France, with politicians from both left and right opposed to the very idea of collecting data about citizens' ethnic origin, to avoid driving a wedge between communities.
Sarkozy said he recognised France's hostility to US-style affirmative action based on race or ethnicity, and had therefore chosen to target all youths from the poorest socio-economic background.
"Social criteria are the way to tackle the problem, since that encompasses all other types of inequality," he said.
But he also called for a change in the law - which bans the gathering of ethnic data - to allow the state to measure the problem of discrimination.
Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac also promised measures to fight discrimination, and Sarkozy blazed a trail by appointing two women of north African descent and a black human rights minister to his government.
But black and Arab faces on television are still few and far between, while there is only one black member of parliament from mainland France and none of Arab origin.
[AFP / Expatica]