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Shaping Preferencial Treatment Policies without Race: The Case of Admission to Elite Institutions of Higher Education In France

“Formal equality of treatment does not guarantee equal opportunity, and even less justice or equity,” declares Richard Descoings, Director of the Paris Institute of Political Studies, Sciences Po. In his book Sciences Po, De la Courneuve à Shanghai (Les Presses de Sciences Po 2007), Descoings questions whether France’s Grandes Ecoles are truly egalitarian and highlights the need to ensure students of all backgrounds have access to the elite institutions of higher education. Figures from the Institut Montaigne, an influential think tank in France, reveal that the student body of the Grandes Ecoles has become progressively less diverse over the last few decades: while in the 1950s, 29% of students entering these institutions came from middle-classes, this number collapsed to only 9% in the mid-90s. These statistics have provoked discussions regarding the overrepresentation of upper-class students in higher education and raised the question of how to balance universalism and equal opportunity. Does equality mean that everyone should be treated identically or rather, that differential treatment is necessary to compensate for pre-existing inequalities across students?

The prestigious Sciences Po chose the latter when establishing the ZEP Conventions Education Prioritaire, Excellence in Diversity program in 2001.  This program introduced a modified entry examination and admissions process to high school pupils coming from a group of selected under-privileged schools (the ZEPs or Zones d’Education Prioritaire schools), breaking with the convention of having one admissions path for all students.  Behind this plan was the desire to diversify the ever more socially homogenous Sciences-Po body of students and to guarantee that high school students of all areas and socio-economic backgrounds have a real chance to attend one of France’s best universities, not just a theoretical one. To Descoings, the CEP program put the Republican ideals of equality and liberty into practice and represented a bold and important step towards democratizing Sciences Po’s and France’s higher educational landscape.

To an American ear, this program faintly echoes affirmative action. Rather than disregard all non-academic descriptors of a candidate in the admissions process, both the CEP program and U.S. affirmative actions schemes do take differences among students’ backgrounds and educations into account when analyzing a student’s application for higher education admissions.  Nevertheless, the CEP program remains quite distinct from U.S. affirmative action policy, in that it does not address a handful of characteristics that form an integral part of U.S. affirmative action schemes, one of the most controversial of which is “race”. In the United States, it has been politically acceptable to take into account a candidate’s racial identification as a criterion in higher education admissions to ensure that students who may have been affected by the legacy of state enforced segregation or present day racism and discrimination have equal access to education. In France, however, such differentiation is unconstitutional. As stated in the Preamble of the Constitution “France is … a secular, democratic and social Republic {that} assures equality above the law to all citizens without distinction of origin, race or religion.” Therefore, French public policy is explicitly prohibited from differentiating among citizens based on their “race”, even if it is with the intention of promoting equal opportunity. 
This essay will explore the intersection of the discourse on race in France and the debate surrounding affirmative action policies in higher education. We will begin by briefly discussing the history of the French, universalistic Republican model, its limited extension of equality to all and its effect on stunting the discourse on race. We will subsequently look at Sciences-Po’s CEP  initiative and explore the relationship between France’s stunted discourse on race and its effect on programs aimed at promoting equal opportunity. 

The Founding Principles of the Republic

Since 1789, the values of equality, liberty and fraternity have stood at the base of French Republic and national identity. Faith and conviction in citizens’ inalienable right to these principles- namely, that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights”  propelled the movement to bring down the Ancien Régime and helped unify the French nation in the struggle to form a Republic that would guarantee equality and liberty to each citizen. The French Republican ideal promotes unity through equality above the law and thus any recognition of divisive categorizations between its citizens based on origin, religion or race would be incompatible with the founding ethic of equality.

The full realization of equality of all citizens, however, has been incomplete. Throughout the course of modern French history, a schism has existed between the Republican universalistic discourse and the systematic failure to implement such ideals in practice. One such example is colonization, a practice that persisted until after the Revolution and well into the 20th century. The French Republic, which championed the equality of man, enslaved indigenous populations in various countries and regions abroad and created a system of segregation in which the European colonial power dominated and infantilized its conquered subjects. While slavery was officially abolished in 1848, the perception of colored colonial subjects as inferior endured, many residents of French colonies faced legal discriminations and the legacy of colonialism may still affect how many in France perceive their own populations of color today. 
Yet colonization is not the only example of shortcomings in the implementation of the Republican Model. Women too, have suffered from unequal rights, gaining suffrage as late as 1944. Muslim Algerians of France and naturalized citizens have also faced legal discrimination at various points in history and other groups as well have faced exclusion under the Republic. One of the most scarring episodes in French national consciousness, for example, continues to be the legacy of the Vichy regime of World War II, whose virulent anti-Semitism crushed the Republican ideals and lead to the denaturalization and deportation of many Jews, a large number of whom were subsequently murdered in concentration camps.

These and other episodes highlight the frailty of the Republican Model. Some may see these events as evidence that it is the model itself which is flawed; an ideal which has become incompatible with the need to recognize and address tensions arising from heterogeneous populations. Others however, interpret these events as ominous consequences of veering from the Republican ideal of legal equality and insist upon the necessity of having no State recognized categorizations among citizens in order to protect against such recurrences. It is in this spirit that the Republican ideal of promoting equality before the law, rather than diversity, remains ingrained in French political values and culture.

The Conventions Education Prioritaire (CEP): an affirmative action policy?

Article 5 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man states that “Free peoples know no other grounds for preference in their elections than virtue and talent,”  words which designate meritocracy as the primary Republican rationing tool. Any public policy which extends equal opportunity to underprivileged students must therefore be careful not to break with this principle, as breeches of the French meritocratic system are understood to be unconstitutional. For example, the American system of affirmative action is often criticized in France for unfairly granting admissions to candidates based on non-relevant, non-performance based information. Though not necessarily the case, some accuse the American system of leaving many more deserving, academically driven and successful candidates unfairly side-lined in order to increase diversity and fill minority quotas. While a large segment of such criticisms are exaggerations and false stereotypes (quotas, for example, are rarely used in the U.S.), the words “affirmative action” in France nevertheless carry connotations of arbitrariness and unfairness and is, reports The New York Times, like “heresy to many people in an officially colorblind, egalitarian France.” 

Sciences Po clearly distinguishes its CEP initiative from affirmative action schemes, known in French as discrimination positive or action positive. The program is labeled as one of “positive mobilization”, free of any kind of quotas or non-meritocratic arbitrariness. It simply aims to expand the ladder of social mobility and extend the opportunity to attend Sciences Po to students of all backgrounds. For pupils of ZEP schools, overcoming numerous obstacles and passing the grueling Grandes Ecoles entrance exams (concours) used to sound like a fairy tale; now, through this initiative, it has become a more tangible reality. 

Eligibility and the Acceptance Process

The CEP selection process consists of two phases.  First, teachers at ZEP high schools are asked to identify students who show the greatest potential to be successful at Sciences Po. These candidates are invited to attend after-school training sessions lead pro bono by teachers, who assist students review press releases and synthesize articles. After these sessions, students give an oral presentation to a panel of teachers and administrators from their high school, and based on the candidates’ performance and baccalauréat score, some are invited to proceed to phase two of the CEP admissions process: an interview at Sciences Po. At this interview, a jury composed of academics, professors and other professionals from Sciences Po’s board ask the candidates about their education, activities, career objectives and current issues in order to evaluate candidates’ interest in and their qualifications for studies at Sciences Po. After this interview, the strongest candidates are offered admission to Sciences Po, and are offered financial aid and special access to tutoring and mentoring upon matriculation to help them adjust to this new and highly demanding educational environment. 

Controversies Around Sciences Po’s CEP Plan

Richard Descoings announced the launching of the Conventions Education Prioritaire in 2001 to the shock of many French elite. As John Vinocur of the International Herald Tribune reports, among many French civil servants and conservative student groups, there was “a genuine feeling…supporting the fairness of the current process of universal competitive entrance examinations, which, in theory, eliminate the levers of influence or wealth” and represents and objective element that can be “fairly measured” . Yet, the introduction of a separate entry path to Sciences Po for pupils at ZEP high schools represents the conscious recognition of the limits of the Republican myth. It is a call for active measures to ensure actual, not just theoretical, equality of opportunity. 
Now in its seventh year, the CEP initiative has seen great success. A dedicated and engaging student at Sciences Po stated during an interview that she would never have thought about attending Sciences Po if not for the CEP initiative. She praised this program for exposing her to new perspectives and career opportunities that had previously seemed unattainable from her ZEP school. “Now,” she noted, ”there is a real opportunity that is making it possible for everyone, regardless of the resources of their high school or their background to reach a Grand Ecole. It takes hard work, but it is possible”. The student strongly believes in the positive role this program has in encouraging students in underprivileged areas to aspire to attend one of France’s Grandes Ecoles. In particular, testimonies from CEP students who return to their ZEP high schools to promote the program, she argues, have had a stimulating effect for many students and have expanded the horizon for many who had previously thought of themselves as trapped in insurmountable socio-economic situations. As to whether she felt stigmatized as a ZEP-student in Sciences-Po, she said “not at all”, highlighting that there is good interaction between the students of both admission schemes and that past promotions of students from the CEP program have done well in the job market. The student did however express her concerns about the small scope of the program, noting that in 2001, the CEP initiative was only available to a handful of ZEP schools. However, she is pleased to see that 56 schools are now eligible in 2008 and hopes this program will continue to grow and inspire a range of similar initiatives in the future. 

The French Republic is proud of asserting itself as a colorblind Republic, where the State is neutral and blind to differences, especially to its citizens’ skin colors. Yet, John Viscour notes that there is “the non-articulated racial subtext”  to the CEP initiative, as what many refer to as “visible minorities” of North African decent constitute a substantial proportion of ZEP residents. Could the CEP initiative be aimed at diversifying Sciences-Po’s ethno-racial composition and be using attendance of a ZEP school as a proxy category through which to target visible minorities without publicly needing to admit to doing so?

The Republican Model and France’s Discourse on Race

The Republican commitment to equality and colorblindness has made conversations on race in the public sphere almost non-existent. First of all, the word “race” in French has very different connotations than its English counterpart. While in the United States, the concept of race can be understood as a sociological category that affects daily life for minority groups, “race” in French refers to biological differences among species, an scientific term of animal categorization term that seems to only enter mainstream sociological discourse during troubled periods of French history. The concept of “race”, for example, played a large role in justifying colonialism and the oppression of the “biologically inferior” natives and was also inextricably linked to the Nazi genocide campaign to cleanse Europe of Jews and Aryanize the continent. The horrors and cruelty of both episodes have delegitimized the concept of “race” in France, as well as in many other Western European countries which went through similar dark episodes, as the concept is seen as being fundamentally incompatible with the primacy of equality of all human beings. As Professor Daniel Sabbagh, Senior Research Fellow at Sciences Po explains, “When people in France think about race, they do not understand the word to have the same meaning as it does in English. In the U.S. the word race identifies groups once discriminated against because of racism and who still suffer from its effects. In French, race connotes genealogy and biological differences, and more specifically Hitler.”  Therefore, public discourse on the subject of race in France is difficult to encounter, with most academic and political circles more willing to discuss “ethnic origin” as a code word for the concept referred to as ‘race’ in English.
As a result, the study of race and discrimination based on skin color in France is limited to a handful of academics and non-governmental organizations and focus groups, which admittedly may or may not influence the larger public debate on race and affirmative action. Even among this small collective of research, there is no clear answer as to whether a student’s race affects his or her educational experience and consequently, no one with whom we spoke argued that such disparities (if they even exist) should be offset by race-conscious equal opportunity programs in France.  

Tailoring the Republican Model

When conducting our research, the most prevalent view expressed concerning equal opportunity programs in France maintained that the Republican model must be respected and adhered to in relation to educational policy: any differential treatment among or categorization of citizens based on “race” would be unconstitutional, dismantle France’s universalism and meritocracy and lend legitimacy to racial discrimination. While vehement supporters of France’s republican philosophy are against any differential admissions schemes, a growing number of analysts recognize the need to achieve greater diversity in higher education while working within France’s colorblind system. Sciences-Po Senior Researcher Daniel Sabbagh, for example, supports Science-Po’s CEP two-track admissions scheme as a pragmatic solution to increase higher education diversity without sacrificing France’s meritocratic or colorblind system. In his article Affirmative Action at Sciences Po (FPS), he notes that while “visible minorities” are over-represented in ZEP school districts, the policy should not be confused with U.S. “race conscious” affirmative action programs: 
Indeed, since one of the main criteria used for delineating a ZEP – the rate of failure in high school – is itself correlated with the proportion of children whose parents are foreign nationals, the Sciences Po program, although officially embodying an area-based and class-based approach of affirmative action, may also be understood as indirectly and implicitly targeting groups that, in the American context, would be considered as ‘ethnic’ or ‘racial’ groups, in particular second-generation North African immigrants. It may then seem at least plausible to read this formally color-blind policy as partaking of a ‘hidden agenda’ specifically directed at accelerating the integration of these immigrants through an ingenious ‘substitution strategy’. In this light, the Sciences Po initiative – as well as the urban development policies (‘la politique de la ville’) that are also typical of affirmative action à la française– would simply work as an (admittedly imperfect) functional equivalent of the openly color-conscious U.S. affirmative action programs, insofar as they do have an expected, positive disparate impact on individuals of North African extraction" 

By focusing on diversifying the geography of schools feeding into the Grandes Ecole and ignoring “race”, is the policy missing a key variable in the struggle for equality of educational opportunities? So far, there is no data to confirm this claim. The use of ethno-racial statistics in France remains underdeveloped, as such studies strictly monitored and controlled by the CNIL. Though a few studies have sought to measure the “race-based” discrimination in France indirectly (by using proxies, like foreign-sounding names), these studies have primarily focused on the housing and employment markets. Without data as to whether race-based discrimination exists in schools, it is impossible to accurately gage and document race-based inequality or measure the success of current anti-discrimination initiatives. It is thus certainly premature to introduce any race-conscious element to equal opportunity programs in France. 
Nevertheless, even in the absence of statistics measuring the extent of race-based discrimination, most of our interviewees acknowledged that the phenomenon, though not necessarily in schools, presents a widespread problem in France. The development of strong anti-discrimination laws with harsh penalties for infractions may represent steps in the right direction: confronting and tackling racism, rather than ignoring it.  Yet, excessive criminalization and stigmatization runs the risk of making discourses on race even more taboo, further stunting dialogue on these issues. 

Developing Constructive Dialogue 

Pap N’Diaye, a historian at Ecole des Hautes Etudes des Sciences Sociales and recent author of La Condition Noire: Essai Sur Une Minorité Française, calls for a long-term cultural change in France. One of the founders of the Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires de France (CRAN), N’Diaye advocates for people who are identified as black to come together with the mission of influencing public policy and adding complexity to the discourse on race, not because of a supposed cultural similarity (as blackness is diverse and cannot be captured by just one culture), but rather out of a shared social experience that is based on a significant racial(ized) component in France. The CRAN website writes:
In the political camp, there are two attitudes towards the question [of discrimination] : One brings to light classic racism based on the idea of the superiority of certain races; the other, antiracist, denies races, but, therefore, obscures the existence of the “black question” and leads to relatively similar results. One cannot reduce the problem of Blacks to a socio-economic question or deny its racial dimension.

To N’Diaye and others of the CRAN, engaging in a more open dialogue about “race” in France is a necessary step towards recognizing race-based discrimination and the eventual use of the political process to affect social change.  Still, the CRAN does not speak for all of France’s black population: many blacks in France do not believe that their skin-color is a unifying element upon which a “Black French Identity” can be constructed.  They deny that the CRAN speaks on their behalf, as well as denying that it speaks on the behalf of others who are against any race-based organization, regardless of its intent. 
In summary, a host of factors have left “race” out of France’s equal opportunity schemes. For one, such categorization by the State is illegal, explicitly banned by France’s constitutionally protected universalism. Secondly, without ethno-racial statistics in France, there is no data proving that “race” as opposed to other factors, like school district or parental income, affects educational opportunities in France. Therefore, there is no proven need to include “race” as an admissions criteria. Moreover, the ZEP-admissions initiatives in place already boost the diversity and presence of “visible minorities” in France’s higher education landscape in a politically justifiable manner (based on objective socio-economic criteria that has been statistically correlated to differential educational experiences). Lastly, there is a lack of political will. Introducing “race” into the political sphere has a dark history that must not be repeated.  Consequently, “race” is not openly discussed in France, and even the potential groups to which the category “ethnic-racial minority” would be extended to promote equal opportunities does not homogenously embrace such categorization.  The introduction of a “race” conscious element to French public policy, specifically to education, therefore seems extremely unlikely, if not utterly impossible. 


The CEP plan of Sciences Po has nearly accomplished its goal of ensuring that at least 15% of each first year class entering the institution is comprised of ZEP students. Just last year 75 out of 550 first year students at Sciences Po came from ZEP schools, totaling 13.6%, and the model has already been copied by other Grandes Ecoles. For example, the Ecole nationale Superieure des Arts et Metiers (ENSAM) and the ESSEC business school each launched their own programs in 2002 and 2003 to promote better representation of underprivileged students. While this is a great improvement compared to the 1990’s, the democratization of French higher education is far from complete. Other Grandes Ecoles have yet to open their doors in similar ways and the CEP-Sciences-Po equal opportunity framework still has room for improvement. ZEP teachers who prepare prospective students for the Sciences-Po entrance exam, for instance, are not paid for this work. In addition, with only 56 ZEP partnership schools, hundreds of ZEP schools are left out of the CEP-Sciences-Po program. 
In hopes of improving current initiatives and reconciling the diverging trajectories of thought on affirmative action in higher education, some like Patrick Weil, Professor at the Sorbonne and Researcher at the Centre National de Recherche Politique, have turned to the United States. In the mid-90s Texas, Florida and California adopted percentage plans (after court-ordered bans of race-conscious affirmative were put into effect in these states) which grants any student graduating in the top 10% of his or her Texas high school class automatic admission to any public college or university in the state. According to Le Monde, these plans were as successful in creating diverse demographics the previous race-conscious affirmative action policies had been.  Consequently, the percentage plan system has attracted the attention of many top scholars in France, including Daniel Sabbagh and Patrick Weil, and top officials of the Sarkozy Administration has expressed interest in possibility of implementing similar schemes in France.  According to Weil, such plans provide politically feasible solutions to increasing diversity in French higher education without compromising meritocracy in admissions. 

The percentage-based system and the CEP initiative do not address the question of “race” in education. They seek to promote diversity using other factors– such school regions or housing zones - which have and will continue to be monitored in order to design public policy that promotes the Republican ideals of equality. While a deeper analysis of the different experiences of students of minority ethno-racial backgrounds could reveal whether “race” is a discriminatory variable that public policy may wish to address, the collection of ethno-racial statistics is subject to rigorous supervision, (when not explicitly banned) as historically,  such statistics been proven vulnerable to abuse. Without such information, one cannot substantiate claims that students of “visible minorities” do face discrimination in school, much less that they face the kind of discrimination that would warrant active policy interventions to address. The burden of proof lies on ethnic statistics or other measures to prove the need to address the question of race in education. Therefore, the flood-gate remains closed: the discourse on race with regards to French higher education policy is largely muted and thus, policy to promote diversity in higher education will continue to do so based on objective criteria rather than any reference to race. 


Work Cited

“Les Conventions Education Prioritaire” Sciences Po Presses, 2005
Bébéar, Claude. Ouvrir les grandes écoles à la diversité. Institut Montaigne, 2006
Cusset, Pierre-Yves  “Ethnic statistics in France: What’s the position to date” Centre d’analyse strategique.. No 22. July 31, 2006. Http://www.strategie.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/Newswatch_22_Ethnic Statistics_in_France.pdf
Hamilton Krieger, Linda. Category problems : implicit bias and the struggle against discrimination. French-American Foundation, 2008
Laronche, Martine and Rollot, Catherin “La Première promotion ZEP de Sciences Po tèmoigne du succès de l’expèrience” Le Monde. June 21, 2006
Sabbagh, Daniel. Affirmative Action as Sciences Po. French Politics, Culture and Society, 2002
Vinocur, John “Affirmative Action Recruiting for Top Schools Startles French Elite”. International Herald Tribune, March 31,2001 
Weil, Patrick. The history and memory of discrimination in the domain of French nationality: The case of Jews and Algerian Muslims, HAGAR International Social Science Review, 2006


Tadeusz, Jeanne (Sciences Po student). Personal interview, 28 June 2008

Ndiaye, Pap (EHESS historian). Personal interview, 30 June 2008

Graniou, Elise (ZEP teacher). Personal interview, 30 June 2008

Nimaga, Halimatou (Sciences Po student). Personal interview, 30 June 2008

Sabbagh, Daniel (CERI researcher). Personal interview, 30 June 2008

Ruchet, Olivier (Sciences Po lecturer). E-mail interview, 1 July 2008

Manière, Philippe (Institut Montaigne director). Personal interview, 1 July 2008

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