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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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

"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.

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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.

"There is resistance in France to confronting the question of race," says Françoise Verges, a specialist in postcolonial politics who teaches at the University of London. "As soon as it emerges, as it did with CRAN, you immediately have people linking it with multiculturalism."

In the 1930s and beyond, France was seen by many black American artists as a haven from racism at home. For years, the subject of race relations was a staple of French intellectual debate. But that debate was focused on French conduct toward its Arab and African colonies and the status of its Pacific Ocean territories. Once the colonies became independent countries, race receded from the public arena.

"Now we are talking about black citizens, citizens who carry another history that is at the same time the history of France," says Ms. Verges. "In that, it's similar to the American civil rights movement in that it asks what it means to be a citizen."

In the near future, however, France may not see its black population mobilize into a cohesive pressure group or evolve into a voting bloc. As far as French pollsters have been able to determine, blacks tend to vote along the same left-right patterns as the rest of the population.

"It would be a radical change in electoral behavior if people voted as a bloc because of color," says Pierre Giacometti, director of the Ipsos polling company, which conducts regular political-opinion surveys. "It's unlikely that blacks will vote as a bloc. And even if they did, their influence would be relatively marginal because their demographic weight is not like in the United States."

Regardless of what CRAN does, many of its concerns about discrimination are likely to figure in the campaign anyway. "Questions of identity and integration will influence the debate and the vote," adds Mr. Giacometti, "because the public is still preoccupied with last year's riots and the sense that our system of integration has failed."

Tapping African-Americans' expertise

Mr. Lozès says that he takes a long view and wants to model CRAN after the activism and voter-awareness programs of the 98-year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But some of CRAN's members are more impatient for change.

A few months ago, they invited Edgar Chase III, an African-American business professor at Dillard University in New Orleans, to speak about the role of education in achieving racial equality.

It was not long before the discussion turned into a strategy session, with Mr. Chase as mentor.

"We should be boycotting companies that don't hire enough blacks," said one young woman. "In the US, big companies felt it was in their interest commercially to not be racist."

There were murmurs of approval from others in the room – all of them French, most of them blacks whose parents or grandparents came from former French colonies in Africa. Mr. Lozès asked for a primer on American affirmative action laws. Others chimed in to ask how to mount a protest march and get positive publicity.

"You need to have a positive mind-set," said Mr. Chase. "You've got to sell your dream and focus on the future, not the past."

"Yes, yes," affirmed Ferdinand Ezembe, a CRAN leader in charge of its education committee.

"Maybe you do a protest march," continued Chase. "But you send a positive message: 'We're doing this because we love France and want it to be able to compete in the global economy."

Afterward, Mr. Lozès was in high spirits.

"I took from him a confirmation of the justice of our struggle," he said.

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