Let me be clear about this: I am not a fan of Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s “playboy” president. I would not have voted for him and I don’t normally agree with much he says.
But I have to agree with the statement he issued regarding his plan to collect voluntary data on race:
He said the lack of data on ethnic minorities was hampering the ability to measure inequality and deal with it.
Having lived in the country for over a decade and a half, I can assure you that racism is rampant. I also therefore agree with the race campaigners in the article who say that the society is “plagued by discrimination”. This is a country that only got its first primetime newscast journalist of colour this decade.
However, I really do not believe that any light can be shed on the extent of this discrimination until reasonably reliable statistics are produced. Unfortunately, many, many groups do not agree with me, including the ground-breaking SOS Racisme.
Recent news articles, like the one in the Guardian linked above, cite France’s “shame at its collaboration with the Nazis”. I absolutely believe this to be true. The French were no more anti-Semitic than the rest of Europe at that time, but the Vichy government actively collaborated with the German occupants, controlling its own population through a well-organised militia (La Milice) that modelled itself on the Gestapo. (This is not something that is widely known, and I first discovered it in Louis Malle’s 1987 film, Au Revoir Les Enfants.)
French society has never got over it. Never even dealt with it properly. After the war, it was easier to tar and feather (literally) a few poor girls who’d slept with German soldiers for whatever reasons, than to actively pursue those in charge. In the 1990s, the trials of Paul Touvier (regional head of the Lyon Milice) and later, Maurice Papon (in charge of “Jewish Affairs” in the Bordeaux area’s regional administration) caused a stir. People, especially Gen Xers and younger, were obliged to face the country’s dark past. And very uncomfortable they were with it too.
It is much easier to pretend that this is the country of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité than to face up to Difference, Privilege and Discrimination. (Maybe I should suggest that as a new motto for France.) By avoiding the collection of data, we can safely shove it all under the rug and not worry about it.
In this current debate, it has also been said that “nobody should ever have to wear the yellow star again”, but the person who said that, (strangely, a politician of colour), forgets that those of us who are not white or who have “foreign-sounding” names wear that badge every single day. And like many Jewish people during that time, we are not or no longer ashamed of it. What we require is that it not be a reason to discriminate against us.
Opponents of the proposed measure say that statistics will not help in the fight against discrimination. And they may be right – per se. But one of the things I believe is important in the collection of statistics is to alert the general white population to the fact that we are not just talking about a handful of troublesome furriners here. We are talking about significant portions of the population, born and bred in this country, and contributing to its economy. To fight against discrimination, we need to be seen.
(On a final note, I abhor the way the Times and the BBC have referred to the measure as an “ethnic census”, effectively bringing back memories of the counting of Jews prior to rounding them up and deporting them to concentration camps. What is journalism coming to?)