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France 'could learn from US' on ethnic minorities

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09:35 CEST+02:00

A group of regionally elected officials is calling for the country to change the rules on how it collects data on ethnic minorities.

The ten representatives are all members of Aneld (Association nationale des élus locaux de la diversité), an organisation that represents diversity in local government. 

The group recently returned from a fact-finding visit to Washington D.C. where they saw first-hand how the US collects data that includes information on ethnic diversity.

France has a long tradition of banning the collection and publication of government statistics that refer to racial or ethnic origin. Based on its egalitarian principles, the country prefers to treat all citizens the same. However, many are now calling for a change of approach as a step towards combating discrimination.

Kamel Hamza, a councillor with the UMP in La Courneuve, north of Paris, praised the American approach, saying it helped "spot unfairness and correct it far more quickly, which makes for a more cohesive society."

He added that France currently has a hypocritical approach to the issue. "Ethnic statistics are already being put together, but always with a negative spin. We can also use them for positive ends and to remove injustices."

François Héran, who headed a 2009 committee set up by President Nicolas Sarkozy into the issue, agreed.

"Statistics on ethnicity help us fight discrimination," he told Le Figaro newspaper. "How can we fight discrimination if we have no data on the subject? If we want to know whether ethnicity plays a role in access to employment, housing and social mobility we need to start with the facts."

In a sign that the debate is likely to be as explosive as in the past, opponents are lining up against the proposal. Patrick Gaubert, president of the Haut Conseil à l'Intégration, which advises the government on integration issues, issued a strong rebuke.

A statement said he is “astonished to see this subject back in the news. Contrary to the values of the French Republic, this question modelled on the American approach cannot be applied to France.”

The statement added "there is no need to fight discrimination by counting the French and foreigners residing in France by their attachment to certain groups."

Estimates of the ethnic minority population in France vary greatly, ranging from 4.5 million to 13 million, out of a total population of 62 million.

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