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Policy Memo: Minority Integration Within the French Political Sphere

The Current Situation:

The French political system is dominated by an elite class of homogenous individuals from similar backgrounds.  For instance, at the end of 2006, only 37.3% of the vice presidents of regional councils and 36.8% of the deputy mayors were women.   This underscores an issue which we strongly believe needs to be addressed in the French Republic: inadequate minority representation within the political system. This includes the national government and its departments, the senate, and local governments including- mayorships and city councils. There is a need for greater democratic involvement to engage minorities and people from traditionally disadvantaged groups in recognizing that they have a role in the French Republic ―and to remind politicians that they cannot ignore such a powerful voting bloc.
The definition of minorities is broad, and embraces many aspects of civil society.  For our purposes, we will define minority groups according to ethnicity, gender classification, socioeconomic background, and institutional educational background.   The French Republic models itself after a policy that ignores differences between French citizens, which in large part derives from events that took place under the Vichy regime, where information collected on the basis of religion led to the deportation of thousands of French Jews.   This idealistic policy has effectively perpetuated a flawed political structure.  
Currently, there is a profound disconnect between French citizens and their government.  This problem is not limited solely to issues of legitimacy, but is more deeply entrenched.  French citizens are highly skeptical of their government.  In fact, a 2005 survey shows that 63% of French citizens neither trust the French parliament (Assemblée nationale) nor their deputies. Moreover, 31% of French citizens declare themselves as not interested in politics, and 94% claim no membership in any political party.  In comparison, 16.3% of American citizens are active members of a political party.   These statistics emphasize the need for the French government to make a more concerted effort to regain the confidence of the citizenry. 
Such a lack of political involvement among minorities can partially be attributed to an educational disparity among these communities.   One such case pertains to École Nationale D'administration (ENA), a school in Strasburg that focuses on training civil servants.  ENA’s goal is to make its students more aware of the issues facing the Republic, since they will eventually be in charge of implementing solutions.
ENA holds exit classification exams to determine one’s government position following graduation.  There is an ongoing debate over a proposal to abrogate this test, in order to allow the administration to choose individuals based on their academic performance up to that point in time instead of a single test.  Still, reforming the exit exam does not address the essential problem of the student body’s excessive homogeneity.  The true culprit is ENA’s admissions policy, which generally limits its selection of incoming students to graduates of Sciences Po, and makes ENA available to many students coming from untraditional backgrounds.
Another issue undermining diversity within the governing bodies in France is the policy allowing individuals to hold multiple political positions concurrently, e.g. mayor, deputy and minister.   Such monopolies preserve the continuity of the traditional political system, making it difficult for new generations to become fully involved and gain access to high-ranking positions.  

Efforts thus far to address the situation

Since Nicolas Sarkozy’s election in 2007, an effort has been made to integrate minorities into the government.  The appointments of Rama Yade, Rachida Dati and Fadela Amara as Secretary of State for Human Rights, Minister of Justice, and the Minister responsible for city housing, respectively, represent improvements in contemporary African and Maghrebian (North African) representation.  At the most basic level, this has visibly introduced minority politicians to the French public at the highest levels of government. 
In addition, reforms made within the educational system, such as socially and territorially- based affirmative action programs, have sought to provide opportunities to disadvantaged students at the best Political Science institute in Paris — Sciences Po — amongst others.  
Despite these recent appointments of minority officials, across France there is still a notable absence of electoral victories by minority candidates.  By and large, the political system remains inaccessible to those unable to enter through traditional means.  The system’s conservative nature prevails at the expense of those who wish to ensconce themselves in the political framework, but encounter numerous institutional roadblocks.  This, combined with the practice by mayors and other local officials of holding several government positions simultaneously, and their reluctance to cede power, makes it difficult to incorporate potential new leaders into French government, even in low-ranking positions. 
Today, the lack of minority representation in French politics poses a challenge on multiple levels.  First, since minorities find themselves unrepresented at all levels of governance, concerns specific to their communities are often not discussed and debated in the public domain.  Political officials tend to ignore difficult and divisive social issues, unless strong pressure is exerted on them to enact policy changes.  Such a neglect of issues perpetuates the exclusion of these groups from politics by removing their incentive for political participation.   If political officials continue not to speak to minority interests, then members of these communities may disengage politically on a permanent basis.


We have drafted three main recommendations aimed at addressing these discrepancies in minority representation within the French political system.  
A) Education and training of new leaders: reform ENA , the national administration school.
 Our recommendation urges that the recruitment of students be expanded to include those of diverse backgrounds, and that the community be given more substantive representation. This is the alleged goal of the ENA preparatory class for ENA,  but its efficiency has been put into question, for several reasons.   The first is that even if students have successfully completed the preparatory class, they must still pass exams and face the ENA jury.  During the latter process they may encounter discrimination, since some of the questions posed to them are geared to a select group of people with more traditional backgrounds.   In addition, there is a self-selecting population of students of highly privileged backgrounds, or whose parents are civil servants.   We see two potential solutions to these problems. Structurally, there needs to be a greater emphasis placed on expanding recruitment to underrepresented areas, as suggested by Tatevic Hovhannissian.  More practically, by reforming the exit exam to be more fair and impartial in its execution, we are confident that a greater inclusiveness on the part of ENA can be achieved.  To those who prefer to retain the current test, we unequivocally assert that s single (often biased) test should not be the sole determinant of one’s career going forward. This practice is unjust, and fails to take a sufficiently holistic view of a person’s intellectual attributes. 
B)  Eliminate the holding of multiple positions in government
We recommend that an official only be allowed to hold one position at a time . For example, one should be forbidden from holding a mandate in a Ministry while also being a deputy in the National Assembly, or serving a mandate at the local level.  
C) Impose term limits
Following a similar logic, we propose limiting the number of successive terms in office to a maximum of three mandates. France must reserve seats for new political faces; limitations to the mandate of an elected official may be an important component of the reform process. 
Previous debates on this issue have not led to reform, because politicians are reluctant to institute such modifications when their personal interests are at stake.  Instead, civil society will have to play a significant role. Through the use of petitions and other efforts to increase awareness, pressure could be exerted upon politicians to make the changes discussed above.  
D) For each political party: hold primary elections in every district to elect a candidate for legislative elections.
This recommendation would provide an opportunity to integrate the political representation of minorities in the Parliament (Assemblée nationale ).   A more competitive and open political environment might lead more individuals to participate in the political process.  In some territories, such systematic primaries would encourage the emergence of local candidates, from diverse backgrounds, on the national stage.  At the same time, this would give the designated candidate more legitimacy, since he/she is elected as opposed to appointed.  Since these elections would now be open, there would be more incentive for people of diverse backgrounds to become involved in politics, facilitating the mobilization of grassroots organizations devoted to empowering disadvantaged groups. Particularly in areas with substantial minority populations, primary elections would offer a wonderful opportunity for establishing a more diverse set of ideologies in the political mainstream.
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France France 2009


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