The president of France today announced a plan to get more ethnic minorities into more prominent positions.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, impatient with what he said was the slow pace of promoting diversity in France, announced measures Wednesday to put more ethnic minorities on TV screens, in political parties and in elite schools.

  A government action plan to be presented by March will spell out the measures in detail. The project is to be overseen by a newly appointed commissioner for diversity and equality, Yazid Sabeg, a son of Algerian immigrants who is known for his efforts to bring equality to the workplace.

“It’s not moving fast enough,” Sarkozy said in a speech at the elite Ecole Polytechnique, south of Paris, a symbol of the very system that has locked minorities out of the mainstream. France must change so that “no French person feels like a stranger in his own country.”  Turning to his audience, Sarkozy said prestigious schools must make room for all.  “We are going to throw open the doors of places where tomorrow’s elite are formed,” he said.  He wants top schools to reserve 25 percent of their places for students receiving state aid by September — and 30 percent by September 2010. Many students who receive government education funds are ethnic minorities from underprivileged backgrounds.

Increasing diversity was a campaign promise of Sarkozy, elected in May 2007. Long ignored, diversity topped the political agenda after fall 2005 riots in poor French neighborhoods exposed deep anger among people of immigrant origin and revealed the extent of discrimination in France.  The election of Barack Obama as U.S. president sparked renewed soul-searching about why so few ethnic minorities rise to the top in France.

Sarkozy squarely rejected affirmative action for France. But in a significant departure from French practice, he raised the possibility that scientists might begin gathering statistics on ethnicity — long taboo in a country that is officially colorblind.  Researchers are handicapped by the inability to make head counts based on religious or ethnic factors and have pressed for permission to do so. Sarkozy said scientists must be able “to clearly identify lagging and measure progress.”

Opening the doors to talented people who have been excluded because of either overt discrimination or systemic bias is both an admirable goal and a means of improving the talent pool.  How this differs from “affirmative action,” however, remains to be seen.  One wonders how these goals will be implemented without numerical goals and timetables overseen by a bureaucracy; almost inevitably, that translates into some sort of quota system.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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