Opinion

With Obama's help, France, too, can shatter the glass ceiling for blacks

The 'Obama effect' should now be harnessed to call for equal opportunity for French minorities.

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"Thank you America!" At 5 a.m. in France, on the night of the US presidential elections, thousands of French took to the streets, crying with joy at the news of Barack Obama's victory.

The French have not been this excited about the US since Jackie Kennedy's visit to Paris in 1961. For the elite, President-elect Obama embodies a new chapter in transatlantic relations. But for the French African and Arab minorities, the new American president is even more than that: He represents the equality of opportunity they do not have in French politics.

France is indeed home to one of Europe's largest black communities and the biggest Muslim minority. One in 10 of its inhabitants is of Arab or African origin. However, the traditional French model of integration is a political failure, and France's political elite remains overwhelmingly white. If nothing changes, a French Obama won't happen anytime soon.

The victory of Obama is holding a mirror to France. And the country is by no means an example. In the United States, there are approximately 10,000 black elected officials. In France, there has not been a black mayor elected since 1989, when a mayor of Togolese origin was elected in a small village in Brittany. And until six months ago, there was not a single mayor of non-European immigrant origins in office. Of the 577 members of the National Assembly (the French Congress), none is from the country's first- or second-generation immigrant population, and only one black congresswoman has been elected in metropolitan France.

What explains this stark contrast? France abolished slavery nearly 20 years before the US, and the French society is not more conservative than the American. So what is the problem?

The French political system has become archaic. Holding to the ideal of "egalitarianism," the country prides itself on making no distinction of ethnic background or race. Ethnic statistics and affirmative action are banned, because France is attempting to be a color-blind nation that treats all French in the same way. And politicians across the political spectrum are opposed to special treatment for minorities, be it through quotas or affirmative action. Thus, promoting diversity is a minefield and minority representation in French politics still remains a dream.

Of course, one can argue that things are starting to change in France. President Sarkozy appointed three minority women: Justice Minister Rachida Dati and Fadela Amara, minister of France's suburbs, are from North Africa, and the Minister for human rights, Rama Yade, is of Senegalese descent. But many agree that this is mainly token politics, and that no concrete action is being taken to open up politics to minorities.

Last year, in his election campaign, Mr. Sarkozy did propose the idea of affirmative action (called "positive discrimination" in France). Unfortunately, he dropped it after realizing it lacked public support.

In France's defense, its experience with non-European immigrants is recent. In the past two centuries, it has absorbed more immigrants than any other European country. But African or Arab immigrants only started coming to France in the 1960s. The country still needs to figure out how to politically integrate its recent non-European settlers.

However, France's vaunted egalitarianism will remain a theoretical ideal if the country doesn't take efficient measures to promote minorities. There is a glass ceiling in France for citizens of Arab and African origin, and that ceiling needs to be shattered.

The "Obama effect" has created a wind of change. It should be harnessed to call for concrete action. French minorities need the affirmative action their American counterparts benefited from. Opening up its elite education system to minorities, is an especially critical step. The French system prides itself on being a "meritocracy" because it offers free education for all, but by being based on color-blind national competitive exams, it fails to help disadvantaged minorities to rise up.

For affirmative action to be possible and effective, data collection on ethnic backgrounds should be allowed, as is the case in the United States. Without this data, little can be done to promote diversity. This will be politically difficult, but since Obama's victory, dozens of French black advocacy groups and antiracism associations are rising and asking for that change.

Of course, a French Obama won't emerge tomorrow. But France, too, can embrace change, and, when it does, it will finally become a country of real equal opportunity for its millions of African and Arab citizens.

Anne-Laure Piganeau de Chammard is a French civil servant and a student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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