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Affirmative action


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I am deliberately posting this message on the "French Culture" section in order to try to avoid raising blood pressures on other sections !

Some (not all !!) may be interested in the following extract from the Financial Times news website.

For me, what's interesting is not so much the obvious & well rehearsed debate about whether affirmative action is a good thing or not. More interesting are the points raised about the very real tensions in French culture between the theoretical equality of all citizens of the Republic, the very real disadvantagee experienced by some of those citizens and the consequent inability to respond positively to the equally real violent conflicts that result.

I DO HOPE posting this doesn't just result in the usual posturing (on all sides ?) about whether we feel affirmative action is a good thing or not ! The issues are too important !

At the very moment when the world increasingly sees it as a counterweight to the US, France is ready to embrace an American institution that its politicians and voters have traditionally spurned. Thanks to an appeal court ruling this month, the way is clear for France to adopt its own version of "affirmative action" - the US system of positive discrimination to increase minority representation in universities and workplaces.

At issue in the court case was a programme launched by the Institut des Etudes Politiques in 2001. Sciences-Po, as the university is called, has been allowing applicants from a handful of underprivileged neighbourhoods ("priority education zones", or Zeps) to bypass its notoriously gruelling written examination and submit to an oral interview instead. Racial diversity appears to be the overarching - if not the only - goal. The first Zeps chosen were areas with heavily immigrant populations and the programme's defenders have tended in unguarded moments to describe it as a means of "integrating" universities rather than of "democratising" them

The conservative students who brought the suit said the programme violated the impartial treatment of subjects that is the cornerstone of French citizenship. The court disagreed. While it faulted Sciences-Po for extending the privilege in an arbitrary way (to some Zeps and not others), it held that different criteria for entry were an acceptable means of reaching egalitarian goals. The road is now clear for similar programmes to be launched in other sectors of public life.

To many observers of French society, the need for affirmative action seems pressing. France's record of integrating immigrants and their children is poor, with youth unemployment almost 50 per cent in some areas.

It is in lessening the threat of communal violence that France would most clearly benefit from positive discrimination. In the US, urban tensions are often defused by appealing to black leaders who have been "bought" into the system by affirmative action. It is not only such spokesmen as Jesse Jackson who are called into action this way but also thousands of high-ranking bureaucrats and corporate executives who serve as role models. In spring last year, by contrast, when French-Arab violence against Jews turned into a national crisis, France could not ask its powerful Arab citizens to appeal for calm, because it did not have any.

The benefits from affirmative action are great, but so are the costs, even if many are hidden by political correctness and bureaucratic legerdemain. It is a society-shaking, tradition-disrupting policy that is bound to have more seismic effects in France than it has had elsewhere. In France the (genuine) elitism of the state apparatus has always been balanced by an (equally genuine) idealism about equal opportunity. Giving up this idealism undermines the citizenry's faith in all the country's institutions, not just those that involve race. That is because affirmative action's core premise is that one racial (or social) group's disadvantage is due to another group's rigging of the game.

In its embrace of positive discrimination, Sciences-Po probably hopes to help the 10 per cent of France's citizens who are Muslim. In this it can almost certainly succeed. But given European birth rates and the steadily growing French demand for low-wage labour, coming decades are likely to see a sharp rise in France's minority population.

Somewhere in its not-too-distant future lies a California-style battle between friends and foes of racial preferences - as one side argues that affirmative action is the least one can do in the name of fairness, and the other claims it is laying the constitutional groundwork for the country's racial Balkanisation."

Best wishes


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In France
>the (genuine) elitism of the
>state apparatus has always been
>balanced by an (equally genuine)
>idealism about equal opportunity. Giving
>up this idealism undermines the
>citizenry's faith in all the
>country's institutions, not just those
>that involve race.

This strikes me as being absolute rubbish.
Piston is traditionally the basis of the French system, it's not what you know it's who you know, and equal opportunity is a foreign concept.
Politics, employment, taxation, you name it it's a bumpy playing field for the indigenous population.
I can never remember if sncf was catholic and la poste communist or vice versa but traditionally no one from the other side had a chance of a job...
Bureaucrats are not seen of as doling out misery in equal portions either, again it's all down to piston or lack of it.
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You are correct - there is a real moral dilemma in this question, but the moral aspect also has so many practical ramifications.
If French (or any other) society does not act to help disadvantaged groups (and these are not 'immigrant' per se) then it is storing up trouble, yet to take affirmative action disadvantages other groups.
I can only see sensitive and pragmatic action as an answer, to be dogmatic (or hysterical) won't help.
In essence, both sides of the debate are right, and all of us are very poor at recognising when that situation occurs, and being able to plan for a resolution of it.

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Hi, there are already some answers to this article a few threads down, in "Educating the Poor".

Going off at a very slight tangent here, but about education - I was dismayed to read in the New Statesman a couple of weeks ago that the first private Muslim school had opened in Paris. And there's that Jewish school that was bombed yesterday too. And there are Catholic schools.

It dismayed me because I agree with the ideal of a lay education, equal for everybody. But it's not an ideal world, and there are clearly many many people who don't want the same as everyone else, and opt out, for whatever reasons.

It's divisive, it separates people from each other, and there'll never be understanding between people who don't talk to each other. There are enough gulfs between people, we don't need to create any more.

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Well I wished that there had been affirmative action taken when my kids were at school. The homework was often the sort of thing that only the french would know......my kids had no chance with some of the things in those pre internet days. Explaining expressions.....I still feel so annoyed about that. Where exactly was one supposed to look these things up, so obscure that a dictionary was no help what so ever. And then the preparation for the dictee......exactly how could I do that with my accent. Look how many people say deja vu......and it always sounds like deja vous, which is not at all the same thing, I was as much use as a chocolate fire guard, when preparing a dictee with my kids, and I can say the 'sharp' 'vu'. Alas french is rather more complicated than just that.

Yes I believe that there is a place for many things including affirmative action at many levels.
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