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French politicians target racism

Paris appointed the first immigrant Muslim to a top job Wednesday as debate over equal opportunity flares.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 2004


France's agonizing debate about racial integration took a fresh turn Wednesday, when the government named the first immigrant Muslim to be a "prefect," one of the state's top administrative posts.

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But President Jacques Chirac's insistence that Aïssa Dermouche had been tapped solely for his qualifications, and not for his Algerian origins, laid bare the strength of feeling fueling arguments over how to extend one of the country's founding principles - equality - to racial and religious minorities.

A threat of fundamentalism

Spurred partly by fears that alienated young people from France's large Muslim minority may slip into fundamentalist Islamist groups, the authorities are beginning to acknowledge how deeply discrimination runs through their society. Proposals to counter it through "positive discrimination" along US affirmative action lines, however, have met with fierce resistance from almost every official quarter.

"The idea that one could be named [to a job] because of one's name is profoundly shocking and unacceptable," Mr. Chirac said last week, reflecting a view broadly held among the French political and intellectual establishment.

In recent weeks France's failure to fully integrate its immigrant citizens - especially its estimated five million Muslims from North Africa - has dominated the political landscape. After drafting legislation that will ban Muslim girls from wearing head scarves in school, the government has now turned its attention to the equally contentious issue of discrimination.

"The debate is open, and that is good," says Mouloud Aounit, head of the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Among Peoples, an immigrant pressure group. "The taboo on talking about reality has been broken."

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy first raised the issue, predicting last November that there would soon be a "Muslim prefect," and then pressing the case for positive discrimination.

"There are parts of France and categories of French citizens who have loaded on their heads so many handicaps that if we do not help them more than they help others, they will never escape," he argued earlier this month.

That set off a firestorm of criticism from colleagues who responded that the idea of affirmative-action quotas would encourage French citizens to identify themselves by their origins rather than as French, and thus destroy the unitary foundation on which the state is built.

Equality and myth

"Specific rights for categories of people depending on their origin ... is technically, legally and politically inconceivable," Social Affairs Minister François Fillon told Europe 1 radio recently. "It is contrary to the very spirit of the constitution," which "ensures the equality of all citizens before the law."

That this equality is a myth, however, is plain for all to see, however little French politicians have wanted to say so.

Young people of immigrant origin - even though they are third- and fourth-generation French - swell the unemployment rolls; the ghetto-like housing projects in big-city suburbs are full of African and Arab families; not a single member of parliament, nor one of France's 36,000 mayors, is black or brown.