Not all is égal in the land of égalité

President Sarkozy plans to strengthen diversity. It is important for Jews that he succeeds

By Natasha Lehrer, December 30, 2008

Last Monday, after a Chanucah party held in the American Church in Paris by our delightful ecumenical synagogue Kehilat Gesher, my seven-year-old son won a plastic magen David. He put it in his pocket and promptly forgot about it. At school the next day, he rediscovered the magen David during playtime and showed it to his best friend, who told the teacher that my son had a religious symbol in his pocket. My son was duly reprimanded for his misdemeanour and the magen David (made in China) was confiscated.

What really hurt him was not the fact that his best friend had betrayed him but that the school has not one but two Christmas trees in the playground, and he isn’t even allowed one magen David out of sight in his pocket.

It is that time of year when we explain to our children why we celebrate Chanucah rather than Christmas, even as every French state institution insists that Christmas is a non-denominational festival and that state-funded Christmas trees and celebrations do not infringe the cherished notion of laïcité.

At its most straightforward, laïcité simply means secularism, but its true meaning is more complex and embraces the peculiarly French division between the public and the private sphere. Religion belongs to the private sphere of home and is banished from the public sphere, which includes school. Hence the famous prohibition against the wearing of a headscarf at school for practising Muslim girls or — for Jewish boys — a kipah (and the less well-known injunction against having a magen David in your pocket). The concept of laïcité has been the hardest one for me to grasp since we came to live here four years ago, harder even than le subjonctif. My children — two of whom are still in primary school — have been quicker on the uptake and do not mention that they are Jewish to any but their closest friends.

The point of keeping your religious identity private is closely related to the precept that all French citizens, regardless of origin, should be considered equally French in the eyes of the state, leading to the prohibition of any official gathering of information on ethnicity or religion. Blindness to ethnic origin is of course honoured more in the breach than in the observance and routine discrimination based on nothing more than a suspect first or family name is commonplace, with job applications often landing in the bin if the applicant’s home address is in one of the less well-favoured banlieues — suburbs — that ring the major cities.

When he came to power in May 2007, Nicholas Sarkozy demonstrated his commitment to diversity by appointing an unprecedented number of ministers with ethnic minority roots to his government. It was a decisive and brave gesture but clearly not enough to smash decades of institutionalised discrimination and, last month, he announced his intention to tackle entrenched discrimination in French society in order to guarantee a genuine equality of opportunity that has eluded the French for so long.

With researchers prevented by law from gathering statistics on diversity in the workplace or the elite educational institutions, the grandes écoles, from which the majority of the country’s business and political leaders emerge, Sarkozy is now encouraging businesses to accept anonymous job applications and is also pressing for greater anti-discrimination measures to be put in place. These include a commitment to set aside 30 per cent of places at the grandes écoles for those eligible for means-tested scholarships by 2010.

Is it good for the Jews? Jews are hardly excluded from the top echelons of French society; they are business leaders, television stars and they wield political power. Dominique Strauss-Kahn is head of the IMF. Sarkozy himself is partly Jewish. The Jewish community is not going to benefit from these measures directly because they are not suffering directly as a result of the current lack of them. But the measures matter for Jews because, to the sizeable north African and Arab communities — probably few of whom can imagine ever leaving their banlieues — Jews are very much part of the problem. A lot of the deep hostility felt in the banlieues towards the elite is directed specifically and viciously towards Jews.

When the Parisian Jew Ilan Halimi was kidnapped, tortured and murdered last year by a gang from a southern Paris suburb, whose leader was born in the Cote d’Ivoire, the gang, believing that “Jews have money”, demanded a ransom of 450,000 euros. There are frequent gang fights in the rue des Rosiers, the Jewish heart of tourist Paris. Tensions between the two communities, who have traditionally lived side by side in less wealthy neighbourhoods, are at an all-time high. The Jewish and Arab teenagers who fight every Saturday afternoon in the Buttes Chaumont in eastern Paris, several of whom have been hospitalised in recent months, are certainly not blind to each other’s origins.

As Sarkozy has recognised, the only way to end the entrenched discrimination that means that so few non-whites reach positions of power and prestige is to enforce some French version of affirmative action. Inspired by Barack Obama’s election to the White House, Sarkozy’s statement of intent is the boldest in living memory by any senior politician or leader of a political party. He should be applauded. The changes he is bringing about will eventually have widespread repercussions, not least in terms of reducing inter-communal tensions. In this case, it seems, what’s good for the Arab community will be good for the Jews, too.

Natasha Lehrer is a writer and translator living in Paris

Last updated: 4:39pm, December 30 2008