As the trial of George Floyd’s killer opens in the United States, identity conflicts are festering in Europe and France. Instead of fighting discrimination, the government has embarked on a course of pursuing the far right and hunting down social scientists. This is all the more regrettable because there is an urgent need to set up a genuine French and European model to combat discrimination. A model which would embrace the reality of racism and ensure the means to measure and correct it, while placing the fight against discrimination within the broader framework of a social policy with a universalist agenda. Let me start with the question of measuring racism. Numerous research studies have demonstrated the reality of racism, but we lack a real Observatory of Discrimination that
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As the trial of George Floyd’s killer opens in the United States, identity conflicts are festering in Europe and France. Instead of fighting discrimination, the government has embarked on a course of pursuing the far right and hunting down social scientists. This is all the more regrettable because there is an urgent need to set up a genuine French and European model to combat discrimination. A model which would embrace the reality of racism and ensure the means to measure and correct it, while placing the fight against discrimination within the broader framework of a social policy with a universalist agenda.
Let me start with the question of measuring racism. Numerous research studies have demonstrated the reality of racism, but we lack a real Observatory of Discrimination that objectifies the facts and ensures annual monitoring. The Defender of Rights, an institution which replaced the Halde ( Haute Autorité de lutte contre les discriminations et pour l’égalité) in 2011, stresses in its reports the extent of discrimination in employment or housing, but still does not have the means to monitor it systematically.
For example, in a 2014 study, researchers sent fake CVs to employers in response to some 6231 job advertisements and observed the response rates in the form of a job interview offer. If the name is Muslim-sounding, the response rate is divided by four. Jewish-sounding names are also discriminated against, although less massively. The problem is that this study has not been repeated, so no one knows whether the situation has improved or worsened since 2014.
There is an urgent need for an official Observatory to say how these indicators are evolving annually. This requires large-scale testing campaigns that allow for reliable comparisons over time and between regions and sectors of activity. It is also essential to be able to say to what extent discrimination is concentrated among a fraction of employers. Like anti-Semitism or homophobia, Islamophobia is not inevitable and can be overcome. Discussion must also take place on the term to be used: some prefer to speak of anti-Muslimism or anti-Muslim discrimination. Why not, but on condition that this does not prevent progress on the substance.
The Discrimination Observatory, which could be placed under the authority of the Defender of Rights, should also ensure the annual monitoring of discrimination within companies (salaries, promotions, training, etc.). To do this, questions on the parents’ country of birth should be introduced into the census surveys (which are carried out amongst 14% of the population each year). This has long been the case in many public surveys (employment surveys, FQP (Formation, Qualification Professionale) or Trajectories and Origins). But their frequency and size are insufficient to make breakdowns by region, sector and size of company, which would be possible with censuses on an anonymous basis. Without such indicators, it is impossible to fight discrimination effectively.
The important point is that all this can be done without introducing ethno-racial categories such as those used in the US and UK. The problem is not so much that this is constitutionally prohibited (the Constitution was amended in 1999 and 2008 to allow for gender parity), but rather that such categories would run the risk of rigidifying multiple and mixed identities, with no clear evidence of their effectiveness in combating discrimination. Since their introduction in 1991 in the British censuses, there is no indication that discrimination has decreased in the UK compared to other countries.
There is also considerable confusion in individual responses: between a quarter and a half of people born in Turkey, Egypt or the Maghreb classify themselves as ‘White’ (a category with which they identify better than ‘Black/Caribbean’ or ‘Indian/Pakistani’), while others classify themselves as ‘Asian’ or ‘Arab’ (a category introduced in 2011, but which did not appeal to all of the people targeted).
If no European country has replicated this experience of identity assignment, this does not necessarily mean that no one cares about discrimination in France, Germany, Sweden or Italy. The introduction of objective questions on the country of birth of parents in censuses poses fewer difficulties and would allow for real progress, with annual testing and real political monitoring.
More generally, positive discrimination policies developed on the basis of ethno-racial categories in the United States or the United Kingdom, castes in India or territories in France are often very hypocritical. This gives the authorities a clear conscience at little cost, while the issue of financing the public services that are essential to breaking the cycle of inequality are often forgotten.
As Asma Benhenda has shown, the average salary per teacher in France increases sharply with the proportion of socially advantaged pupils in the school. In other words, the meagre bonuses distributed in priority education zones are in no way sufficient to compensate for the over-representation of temporary and inexperienced teachers. When we create 1000 places in ‘talented’ prepas, (preparatory classes) without increasing the resources allocated to the millions of disadvantaged students in university tracks, we are only reinforcing a hyper-inegalitarian education system.
We must have the means to measure and vigorously fight against discrimination, but we must also and above all support universal social policies, without which the march towards equality will remain wishful thinking.
PS. A couple of census bulletins: