Race And Ethnicity Data: Time To End The French Model

The country's 'principled' approach to data collection does a disservice to people dealing with real and consequential discrimination.

File photo of the Paris Metro
File photo of the Paris Metro
François Héran


PARIS — The debate over how and whether France should compile statistics on ethnicity resurfaces from time to time, and in a Manichean fashion.

As it stands, processing individual data showing ethnic, racial, religious, trade union membership or political affiliations as well as state of health and sexual orientation isn't allowed here. And yet, researchers, pollsters and even government agencies conduct numerous surveys on these themes. So how does that work?

The answer, in short, is that the law includes numerous exceptions to the rule. The regulatory body that grants such exceptions is the National Commission on Informatics and Freedom (CNIL in French), an independent agency tasked with keeping an eye on the use of personal data in France. The CNIL takes into account the purpose of a given study, the consent of individuals, how data is made anonymous and participant protection. These exemptions apply to surveys conducted for information purposes, almost never to management files that regulate the fate of individuals (employees, tenants, students, etc.).

Since 2003, surveys by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), including its national employment study, have asked questions on the country of birth and previous nationality, not only to the person concerned but also to the individual's parents. Doing so makes it possible to identify immigrants and their French-born children, and thus measures the significance of origins on opportunities to access employment, housing, education, etc., provided that participants have similar ages and skills.

Confusion is sown by claims that ethnic statistics will encourage a return of colonial-era ethnic categories.

Throughout continental Europe, numbers that identify the country of origin of people now living in another country are called "ethnic statistics," as opposed to "ethno-racial."

Our standard statistic is both ethnic and in line with French republican values: It identifies origins via civil status, without the American-style "racial reference frame" (white, Black, Asian, etc.), which only the United Kingdom and Ireland have adopted. When specialized surveys on discrimination go further by mentioning skin color — such as the so-called TeO study (on origins and career paths) and the CI study on identity checks by the Paris police — they do so on condition that the "race" criterion not be imposed on the individual but be based rather on what the person feels or perceives.

Confusion is sown by claims that ethnic statistics, in the European sense of the term, will encourage a return of colonial-era ethnic categories. But the studies being done aren't interested in whether someone is Soninke, Kabyle or Hmong. They only want to know if the person in question is Portuguese, Moroccan, Malian, Polish or Syrian.

It is just as pointless to raise the specter of the various "nationalities' that the Russian Empire used to categorize people for centuries and that were formalized under Stalin. This kind of reductio ad Stalinum is no more valid than the reductio ad Hitlerum argument.

Finally, some people think that the mixing of origins ruins any statistical effort. It's true that having parents born in two regions of the world is common. But in this area, as in others, there is nothing to prevent the flexible construction of mixed categories.


People waiting to cross the street in front of L'Arc de Triomphe in Paris Photo: Viet Hammer

In order to conduct an orderly debate on ethnic statistics, as called for by government spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye, both researchers and practitioners need to be mobilized. In his Le Monde column, French demographer Hervé Le Bras argues that his university friends were necessarily better qualified to deal with the issue than the Committee for the Measurement and Evaluation of Diversity and Discrimination (COMEDD), which I formed 10 years ago.

COMEDD brought together institutions with a solid grasp of the problem, including the CNIL, the High Authority to Combat Discrimination and Promote Equality, rights associations, employer and workers unions, recruitment agencies, social housing providers, researchers and statisticians who had conducted in-person national surveys.

Yazid Sabeg, commissioner for diversity and equal opportunities and sponsor of COMEDD's final report, made no secret of his disappointment on the day it was delivered in January 2010. He thought that it was enough to make the data anonymous at the source to stop it being personal and out of the control of the CNIL, thus allowing all possible questions about the phenotype to be asked.

I had to explain to him that the CNIL still has a say over what to do with the data. In fact, we have worked on a constant legal basis, advocating the best use of the exemptions allowed by the law. In 1999, they had already made it possible to extend the INSEE family survey to prisons and to measure the presence of certain national origins, a legal breakthrough that has never been repeated.

Racial discrimination exists alongside social inequality.

COMEDD's recommendations did not go unheeded. In 2012, they were included in a guide, co-published by the CNIL, called Measuring for Progress towards Equal Opportunities. These efforts need to be stepped up and systematized to enable changes to be monitored.

There's still the one, crowing argument to contend with: That ethnic statistics can ultimately destroy republican universalism. But the TeO survey showed the opposite. A dozen years later, who can argue that it somehow eroded our freedoms? It has not cast shame on any minority, nor has it "communitarized" the nation. The same can be said for the INSEE surveys published in Economie et statistique, and the studies done by researchers Eric Cédiey, Yannick L'Horty or Marie-Anne Valfort.

The information proved, rather, that discrimination based on origin and appearance continues to be rife for individuals in the same social status. As such it invalidates the position of Marine Le Pen, the arch-conservative who denies such links. Racial discrimination exists alongside social inequality. It adds to it.

We need to stop seeing ethnic statistics as being opposed to republican principles. What is the point of brandishing our universalist ideals if we refuse to measure the gap that separates them from reality? Far from undermining the principle of equal treatment, ethnic statistics take the equality ideal at its word, provided they aren't mixed up with ethno-racial statistics or be extended to management files.

Only by looking reality in the face can we go from paying lip service to properly promoting the ideals of the nation.

*François Héran is a sociologist, anthropologist and demographer and a professor at the Collège de France, where he holds the Migration and Societies chair.

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A Dove From Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida Tough Enough To Lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.

Japan's new PM Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Sept. 29

Daisuke Kondo


TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.

After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.

Born into politics

A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.

He is an excellent actor.

Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.

However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.

An invitation for Obama

After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:

"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."

According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.

In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.

Photo of Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida with their backs to the camera, in Hiroshima in 2016

Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016

Japanese cynics

In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.

But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years

When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.

Leftist traditions from Hiroshima

Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.

How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?

Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.

So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.

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