Change (the French) believe in ?

Over the past year, and throughout the Democratic primary, the French have been discovering Barak Obama. Obamania hit France last Spring and over the Summer.

At the moment, four days from Inauguration Day, the media is full of Obama-related content. Several regions and cities have disputed fame for hosting Obama ancestors (centuries ago). Politicians have been citing and recycling « Yes We Can » way more than would be necessary over the past few months.  Through December, the city of Strasbourg encouraged voters to register for this year’s EU Parliament election by telling them « Yes, you can. » Ok, we get it.

On Tuesday, the city of Schiltigheim, in the Strasbourg area, will be organizing with the US Consulate an event called « Obama Day » with political gotha, the press, and the multicultural youth of the « cités » (a cité is a poor, minority neighbourhood, often what Americans would call a ghetto).
The question I find interesting is : what is the effect of Obama on the French psyche ? The US election has definitely changed the way Afropeans perceive themselves in their society, yet Europe and North America are definitely extremely different both in racial history and in the status of minorities such as Afropeans or Arab Europeans. Obama has definitely changed the way the US is perceived in the cités, which are traditionally politically Anti-American and culturally highly Americanized. But for that matter, could a Black man become a national leader in France ? Up to now, minority politicians were confined to government jobs such as « Integration » and what not, or sent to non-strategic elections such as this year’s EU Parliamentary election. Sarkozy somewhat shook that up by doing what the French left unfortunately hadn’t had the guts to do, that is name an Arab woman, Rachida Dati, Minister of Justice and a Black woman Under-secretary for (I think it was Freedom and something else, under the authority of the Foreign Affairs Minister). The Elysée (French Presidential palace) is said to be on the lookout for the next Rachida Dati within entrepreneurial circles. One might ask : why is an Arab woman considered ok (harmless, so to say) but not an Arab man ?

Which brings us back to racial issues.

President Sarkozy, whom I didn’t vote for, but have to mention, gave a speech last month calling for a shakeup of French institutions, higher education, and business habits to reflect the diversity of French society. So far, the debate over affirmative action, for instance, has been caught up between the French principe d’égalité, which says you can’t discriminate—were it positively—on the basis of race or religion, but on tolerated « geographical » conditions (who lives in a ghetto?), and a more hands-on approach of people calling for open recognition of ethnic issues. It would seem from an American perspective that the latter is the better, but a closer look at French institutions and traditions make it clear things aren’t so easy. France has a strong aversion to the very notion of ethnicity, which sometimes goes all the way to ignoring its mere social existence. History has also played a role in France’s relation to ethnicity : the combination of the IId World War’s use of ethnic statistics to eliminate Jews and other minorities, and of the Algerian War of the 1950s and 60s, which made the Arab a so complicated figure in French psyche, has reinforced the country’s blind equality stance. The latter hasn’t stopped France from some degree of decentralized innovation. Sciences Po, the university I went to, has a kind of affirmative action program for kids from poor high school districts. It consists in a fast-track admissions program directly taken in the partner high schools. One of the main consequences is to produce ethnic diversity within the school ; so perhaps facts and consequences should be examined first. The program is called « discrimination positive », and it is often disregarded as contradictory with the principe d’égalité. You’re not suppose to offer a parallel admissions program. Everyone should take the « concours » (entrance exam) to enter the elite higher education system, although everyone isn’t as well prepared for it depending on social class and high school education. The concours was borrowed from the Chinese to combat discriminatory, discretionary practices in French administrative history. It does formally favor equality, but there is no equal access to opportunity in preparation for the various concours.

Further reflection is pursued at the moment. The President called for a quota for poor high school districts within the classes préparatoires. The fact is, right now there aren’t that many future Baracks and Michelles in the French equivalents to Harvard Law. There are many more Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons given the high degree of social reproduction that can be found within the French elite education system. Other schools such as ESSEC (business school) or the Ecole normale supérieure (an ancient high-level research school) prefer outreach to affirmative action, and have developed ‘Yes you can’ programs in poor urban schools.

One of the problems with French thinking on diversity is that it’s always focussed on elites. You don’t hear much about diversity throughout the system and the social, professional, economic and educational ladder ; you hear about who’s in charge, who goes to the ENA (the elite administrative school Chirac, Jospin and many other politicians went to), who’s on TV. Obviously, all of this is important. Minority children need to grow up with positive role models. But they need all kinds of positive role models, not just politicians and TV anchors.

Moreover, many « diversity » leaders are appointed, not « naturally » recruited. Rachida Dati became a politician when Sarkozy recruited her. Many minority politicians have trouble winning local and general elections in order to emerge by their own means. The Black TV anchor on n.1 channel TF1 was chosen because he was Black, or in large part for that reason. This doesn’t mean they’re not highly qualified, it means they’re still considered « minority » before they’re looked at for what they’re worth. That’s one major difference with a « post-racial » America.

There is, in French history, some record of diversity. The Chairman of the French Senate in the 1960s, Monnerville, a long-time opponent to De Gaulle, was a Guyanese Black man who in later years was Senator of a totally white, agricultural district of central France. Continental France had Black Mayors as of the 1930s. Still, there can be no easy comparison with the present situation given the change brought about by post-war immigration, that has produced contemporary multicultural society. Voting for a Black man in an all-white society didn’t mean the same thing back then, although these facts should definitely be remembered. France did practice diversity in high-level political leadership before any other Western country.

Obama has struck a chord in French society. People are surely already viewing minorities differently. That doesn’t mean progress isn’t needed. It seems that at the moment, despite its partly positive, partly negative history, and for all the enthusiasm about Obama’s post-racial identity and cosmopolitan-American upbringing, France isn’t ready for its own Obama.