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In officially colorblind France, blacks have a dream – and now a lobby

By Susan SachsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 12, 2007


Patrick Lozès has a dream: One day France's black citizens will enjoy the equality granted them under law.

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"To be black and proud – that's not being anti-French," says Mr. Lozès, whose vision challenges France's colorblind model of assimilation. "It's simply theliberation of a people who don't see themselves reflected in their country's public life – in its theater, television, medicine, and universities – except in negative images."

It is not an accident that Mr. Lozès's words often contain echoes of Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminaries of the American civil rights movement. The African- American struggle for racial equality has been his prototype for France's first national black lobbying organization.

His group, called the Representative Council of Black Organizations (Le Conseil Représentative des Associations Noires, or CRAN), was founded in late 2005, just after widespread rioting in the suburban ghettos populated largely by the families of African and Arab immigrants.

The riots were not the motivation for creating CRAN, according to Mr. Lozès. But they gave the group immediacy, momentum, and a high public profile.

Its leaders have spent the past months holding conferences, setting up committees, and building a grass-roots network across the country through the more than 130 local black civic associations that make up its membership. The group has also regularly protested – against a television host who insulted Africans, against the way one French dictionary defined colonialism, and against laws prohibiting the collection of racial and ethnic statistics.

CRAN's big test will come in this spring's presidential and parliamentary elections. While political experts are doubtful that the group will succeed in uniting blacks in a single voting bloc, its leaders say they will make their mark by putting the question of racial discrimination squarely on the campaign agenda.

Mr. Lozès says they've already succeeded in making blacks visible, as blacks.

"For a long time we have been identified by country of origin or by economic status, which was a hypocritical denial of our identity," Mr. Lozès adds. "If you keep saying 'African,' it pushes the problem away. The reason for the discrimination is not because we're African. It's because we're black."

France does not ask about race on its census. Nor does it collect information about heritage beyond asking for the birthplace of a person's parents. So estimates of the size of the black population are only educated guesses based on immigration data and assumptions about family size. CRAN contends that France has between 2.5 and 5 million blacks – representing at most about 8 percent of the population.

Measuring racism is also difficult, although the government agency handling complaints said that 40 percent of the 1,800 sustained cases involved discrimination on the basis of race or national origin. The government, particularly in the past few years, acknowledges that there is discrimination in the job market and a lack of diversity in media and other institutions.

But the victims of such discrimination are officially described only by their situation, as residents of "disadvantaged" neighborhoods, for example, or as people "of immigrant background."

CRAN runs into deep-rooted hostility

CRAN, in defining itself as a black organization, has run into deep-rooted hostility. Its premise, that black citizens have shared aims and problems by virtue of the color of their skin, may seem obvious to outsiders. But many conservatives and academics here have complained that the group undermines the French model of assimilation by emphasizing racial differences.