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.
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.
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.
"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.
Job seekers are three times less likely than their white neighbors to be offered work if one of their parents is from Algeria, a recent study found.
Waking up to the social and political dangers that such discrimination poses, government leaders have now begun to pay more attention to the problem of integration, though they maintain the French state's traditional and deliberate color-blindness, refusing to gather data on citizens' ethnic or religious backgrounds, which makes it impossible, for example, to know exactly how many Muslims there are in France.
In a recent speech, Chirac said he understood "the feeling of incomprehension, despair, and even revolt" among young people from immigrant families, and he acknowledged the need to "shatter the wall of silence and indifference which surrounds the reality of discrimination."
Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin promised this week that his center-right government would make 2004 "the year of a battle for equal opportunity and struggle against discrimination."
A government commission on discrimination is due to report next month, and will propose the creation of an independent authority to promote equal opportunity. But it will reject positive discrimination, says its chairman, Bernard Stasi.
"I am absolutely opposed to positive discrimination," Mr. Stasi says forcefully. "It is contrary to the concept of the French nation. France sees itself as a united country with shared values, and we don't put people in drawers."
Even Mr. Aounit, who has spent his professional life fighting racial discrimination, agrees.
"We have to give more to those who have less, to make equality of opportunity effective," Aounit argues, adding: "I say yes to positive discrimination on social grounds. I say no if it is founded on ethnic or religious criteria.
"The color of your skin should not be an advantage, nor a disadvantage," he says. "Identifying people according to the origins of their parents or their religion means separating them. It is not part of the French tradition."
In two areas, in fact, France has introduced quotas.
Half of all candidates on political- party lists at elections must be women, according to a law introduced by the last government, and companies are obliged to set aside jobs for handicapped people.
But while it is easy to determine who is a woman and who is handicapped, "it would not be possible to share out quotas among the range of different nationalities in France," says Aounit, who himself comes from Algeria. "The idea could not be applied."
Rather, he insists, "We need the political will and determination to apply the laws" against discrimination "in all their severity. We have to break out of the lethargy that has characterized treatment of this issue."
"The solution is not to put quotas in place," he adds. "It is to demand respect for the principle of equality of opportunity based on a person's competence. That takes political will."