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Racial data proposal sparks new controversy in France

  • MariĆ«tte Le Roux

    Agence France-Presse

Paris, France   /   Tue, June 16, 2020   /   07:18 am
Racial data proposal sparks new controversy in France Police officers stand in the business area of La Defense, west of Paris, on Monday, during a protest in reaction to the French Interior minister's June 9 announcements, amid the latest wave of protests against racism and police violence. French police have staged protests over claims of racism in their ranks, assailing top officials for failing to defend the force against allegations amplified by US unrest over the death of George Floyd. The French Interior minister also said police would no longer be allowed to use chokeholds to detain suspects, a move derided by many officers as an unfeasible concession that could make their jobs more perilous. (AFP/Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt)

As France reels from allegations of racism in the ranks of its police, a debate has resurfaced on lifting a long-standing ban on racial population data, which some say could help paint a clearer picture of inequality in the country.

Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye raised the ire even of cabinet colleagues by proposing that including people's race in the national database could allow policymakers to "measure and look at reality as it is".

Ndiaye, who is Senegalese-born and has complained of casual racism in her adoptive country, argued in a letter in Le Monde newspaper at the weekend that France should have an honest look at the "representativity of people of color in the public, political, economic and cultural life of our country".

A 1978 French law prohibits the collection of data on a person's race, ethnicity, or political or religious opinions for the national census or other surveys.

This means there is no official data on the racial makeup of the population of France, long a country of immigration, including from its former colonies in North and West Africa.

Race is a sensitive topic in France, a country deeply scarred by the memory of the Vichy government under German occupation during World War II rounding up and deporting Jews to Nazi concentration camps.

Ndiaye's boss, French President Emmanuel Macron, said Monday he did not wish to revisit "at this time" an issue that divides even the almost exclusively white members of his government.

Macron "supports concrete actions to fight discrimination rather than a new debate on a subject unlikely to yield rapid and visible results," a presidential adviser, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

 

'Reconcile society' 

In an address to the nation Sunday night, the president promised an "uncompromising" fight against racism after recent demonstrations against alleged prejudice in the police.

On the same day, Human Rights Watch said France should halt identity checks by the police that are "abusive and discriminatory" towards black and Arab males.

Macron in his address acknowledged France must address the fact that "the name, the address, the color of the skin" can affect a person's chances in life.

Ndiaye pressed on with her campaign Monday, telling broadcaster France Inter that racial data could help fight "subtle racism".

And it could help "reconcile two strands of our society that are forever at odds: those who tell you: 'the blacks and the Arabs, people of color have access to nothing' and those who tell you: 'The problem does not exist'," she insisted.

Her proposal was shot down by cabinet members, including Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin.

"I remain unfavorable to ethnic statistics which do not correspond with French universalism," Le Maire told franceinfo, emphasizing a French citizen was French irrespective of origin or race.

Darmanin told BFMTV he would rather support statistics based on where people live.

"When you come from a disadvantaged neighborhood... whatever the color of your skin, it is more difficult to find an internship than when you are someone of a skin colour different than whites, as they say today, living in the seventh arrondissement of Paris", a rich neighborhood.

France's National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, a government body, says collecting race data risked "stereotyping" people.