Anti-racism politics and statistics: inconsistency in France

A big control over ethnic monitoring data

After George Floyd’s death, we have seen yet more evidence that racism is still a major problem in many countries of the world. In France, George Floyd’s death has widely been qualified as a hate crime and immediately reminded French people of Adama Traoré’s tragic death in 2016, provoking a major debate upon racial discrimination, not only in the country but also in different parts of the world. You might not be aware of this but there are still some countries in the world in which you cannot generate statistics based on ethnic origin. Near Wales, France is still applying a big control over data, and the use of statistics related to ethnicity. Thus, debating this subject in France is extremely hard. It is almost impossible not only because this is a delicate and burning topic but also because in the absence of ethnic stats, this discussion only relies on personal opinions and experiences. But the problem is that opinions can be biased by individual experiences and therefore cannot be widely applicable. Therefore, this “negligence” of reliable data could limit and lead to an inability to identify and protect vulnerable people. As a French person living in Wales, I thought this issue was worth being discussed. Why can’t ethnic statistics be collected in France? What impact does it have?

France’s approach: no ethnic group can be identified as “minorities” or “majorities”

Usually, the French Republic distinguishes the measure of discrimination and the will to preserve its universalistic culture. France’s general approach on equality could be summarized as follows: no ethnic group must be identified in order to create a real national union. Every French citizen must be treated equally, and no comparison can ever be made within the population. And as a French citizen, I can tell this principle of equality is a pillar of French Republic that could hardly be modified. Therefore, collecting statistics based on people’s ethnicity or race can be unlawful. Attention should be drawn here to the constitutional position regarding statistics on ethnicity: the first article of the French Constitution states that “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic. It ensures equality of all citizens without distinction of origin, race or religion”. Collecting ethnic stats is strictly controlled and can only constitute a valid alternative in specific situations which are, most of the time, for scientific research. Therefore, applications for authorisations are quite rare because these procedures are often time-consuming and laborious. Moreover, research into ethnicity has been criticised for a long time in the academic world as it could reflect data limitations and be biased. Nevertheless, France’s position on “ethnic statistics” has been discussed and criticised, especially because this question highlights a clear contrast with other States’ approaches. This subject has generated a controversy between those who would like to measure the diversity of the population and those who deplore the threat of racializing society.

Ethnic statistics have a strategic role in framing anti-discriminatory policies

As a French person in the UK, I must admit that I have been quite surprised to hear the different types of classifications commonly used. This was very unusual to me. The first thing that surprised me is that I had never heard of the concepts “BAME” and “ethnic minority” before coming here. There is no equivalent of these concepts in France, always regarding the traditional idea of equality. Second, classifying people upon their skin colour or supposed race first seemed sobering to me, not only because the word “race” has a negative connotation in French but also because it would feel like violating the idea of equality. On the one hand, I think France’s approach can be easily understood: every person on the French territory will always be regarded as a French citizen before anything else, no matter their skin colour or origin. This feels fair and inclusive, right? Nevertheless, ethnic estimations in France are inevitably inconsistent and often lead to overestimations and underestimations. Therefore, this system obviously proves its limitations. How can you measure discrimination if you do not have a concrete idea of who is marginalized and why they suffer it more than any other person? And how can you address these issues without measuring them? Ethnic statistics have a strategic role to play in the framing of anti-discriminatory policies. Thus, the lack of ethnic statistics shows the need to carry more research. Beyond that, I believe measuring diversity would positively consider the plurality of France and legitimise the right to be different.

Ethnic statistics are commonly used in the UK but actions still need to be taken

On the other hand, other models taking into account ethnic stats are widely used. For instance, the British multicultural model considers that ethnic and racial discrimination is real and must be tackled in full knowledge of the facts. The United Kingdom explicitly recognises the existence of ethnic minority groups within its national populations. The collection of this data is now widely used in many fields: health care, academia, private sector, political representation, etc. Thanks to this research, thousands of studies have been published giving true facts upon people from a BAME background in terms of discrimination, inequalities, and regional representation. This research has raised awareness sector by sector on difficulties faced by ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom. For instance, recent research published by Public Health England shows that people of Bangladeshi origin are most at risk of dying from COVID-19 in the UK and that BAME people are more likely to contract the virus and suffer consequences of self-isolation. The United Kingdom’s aim is to ensure that public politics help to achieve a better integration of BAME communities by collecting more ethnic data for a better understanding of discrimination. However, the United Kingdom may record data but they haven’t really taken action on this. By this, it means that many places of work are still ruled by racist employers or employees who treat ethnic minority differently. This is why a lot of people talk about institutional/systemic racism in the UK.

Ignoring the problem only feeds denial

I have always looked up to the United Kingdom as a tolerant place and more progressive than France in terms of equality. For example, when we apply for a job in France, we still need to add our photograph to our resume if we want to increase our chances of being invited to interview. This is wrong and could be used unfairly. To be honest, collecting ethnic origin data in the United Kingdom is not approved by every citizen and it can be debated to some extent. But thanks to these debates, more and more research is regularly published in order to refine statistical instruments. Though racism is a long way from being tackled even in the UK, at least, they talk about the problem here and record data on it.

To put it in a nutshell, I think France’s approach is plausible but too idealistic. Closing your eyes on the issues faced by ethnic minorities feeds the denial that France would be a country in which equality is real. However, we know that discrimination is a problem in France, just like there is in the United Kingdom. The problem is that French politics cannot fight inequalities not knowing where/to whom to address their policies and it feels wrong to know that in 2020, people still suffer due to ignorance and lack of data monitoring: if you can’t measure a problem, then how can you fix it? Moreover, positive discrimination in France has proved to be an issue for years now; this clearly has not been the best solution to tackle discrimination. The United Kingdom might not be the most inclusive place to look up to, but we cannot deny the fact that measuring the problem can help to develop specific politics to tackle these issues. In France, the issue is not addressed properly – all because we cannot even name and cite the difference that exists for ethnic minorities. It is an illusion to think that an issue like racism can be solved without being measured, quantified and analysed. I believe we cannot fight racism by closing our eyes to the problem. To make our society fairer, we can only effectively deal with discrimination and racism if we acknowledge that they exist in our society.