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Survey: Blacks in France Say They Face Racial Discrimination

More than half of blacks living in France say they face racial discrimination, according to the first-ever survey on the country's black population. The findings are troubling for a country that has long prided itself on its human rights record, and its ostensibly color-blind integration model. Lisa Bryant has more for VOA from Paris.

According to a survey conducted by the TNS-Sofres polling agency, 61 percent of blacks living in France say they have experienced at least one racist incident within the past year.

More than one in 10 of the 13,000 respondents said they were frequently the target of racism that ranged from verbal aggression to difficulty finding housing or jobs.

The French advocacy group The Representative Council of Black Associations commissioned the survey. Its president, Patrick Lozes, says these are troubling statistics.

Lozes predicts the poll will change things in France. Until now, he says, blacks have never been counted. And a population that is not counted, does not count.

Blacks are not counted because census and other official surveys are barred from compiling statistics based on religion or race. But some experts estimate there are about five million blacks living in France.

The head of the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples, Mouloud Aounit, says he is not surprised by the survey's findings.

Aounit says racism exits in French daily life. Look at the Senate, the National Assembly, regional councils, he says. Ethnic representation is totally absent.

France has long argued all of its citizens are equal under its revolutionary creed of liberty, equality and fraternity. For this reason, the government - and many French - are against affirmative action policies favoring minorities.

But many of the poorest French - including many ethnic Africans and Arabs - remain locked in aging housing projects and other run-down dwellings. Advocacy groups say they rarely enjoy the same educational and employment opportunities as white French.

Only 10 of France's 577-member National Assembly are black. Blacks remain similarly underrepresented in the private sector -- less likely to find jobs, experts say, and less likely to be promoted when they do.

There are some signs of change, such as when France's leading TF1 news agency hired a black reporter last summer to fill in for its top anchor. But activists like Aounit say these are symbolic gestures.

"The problem is not about having a black journalist on television," Aounit says, "but how to ensure conditions that pluralism exists throughout the media and in every part of French society."

There are disturbing trends to the contrary. In a survey last year, one in three French described themselves as "a bit" or "somewhat" racist. In another, published last week, 13-percent of respondents said they would likely vote for far-right, anti-immigrant leader Jean-Marie le Pen in April presidential elections.

On the streets of Paris, some blacks were reluctant to talk about discrimination they might face. But 36-year-old Jacques Bassong was not.

A native of Cameroon, Bassong moved to France in 1979. He says he faces discrimination from time to time, at work, in government offices, even in the stores. Some French are more racist than others, he says, but generally the incidents are bearable.

Last week, France's Canal Plus television channel aired a two-part documentary called "In the Skin of a Black." In it, white and black French "traded places and races" with the help of heavy makeup. It tracked the problems faced by members of the "new" black family because of their skin.

But French politicians running in this year's presidential and legislative elections seem to be waking up to the power of blacks and other minorities, as prospective voters. Even Le Pen is reaching out. His National Front party launched a poster featuring a black woman making the thumbs-down sign and the slogan: "Left/right - they have broken everything."

Still France has never had any nationally known presidential candidate who is black or any other racial minority. Is the country ready for a black president?

Black association head Patrick Lozes says he thinks the French electorate is much more open to the concept than French politicians. But Aounit, of the anti-discrimination movement, disagrees.

Aounit says he believes French voters are not at all ready to elect a member of an ethnic minority as president. And that, he says, is unfortunate.