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French Vote to Test Whether Political System Reflects Diverse Population

  • Lisa Bryant

Fleur Pellerin pose for the first annual Washburne Award for innovation in diversity at the US Embassy in Paris, May 23, 2012
MONTREUIL, France - France's left is expected to sweep legislative elections, in a trend that saw Socialist Francois Hollande elected president last month. But from the Paris suburb of Montreuil, The vote will also test whether the country's political system can reflect its multiracial electorate.

Campaigning in France

Razzi Hammadi seems to know everybody in Montreuil. But he is not looking for friends. He is looking for votes. An ethnic North African, the 33-year-old Socialist is campaigning for a seat in France's National Assembly.

"I run because I want to represent my people. My people are all the persons who are coming from socially difficult situations. My people are all the persons who want change," said Hammadi.

Political change - but also social change. Hammadi is among dozens of minority candidates vying to become one of the assembly's 577 deputies. They represent the increasingly diverse face of France.

French law forbids statistics based on racial or ethnic origin. But experts estimate racial minorities make up about 10 percent of the population. Yet only about a dozen National Assembly deputies are black or ethnic Arabs.

Hammadi believes voters want to change this. "I think that they are ready. I think that they want this," he stated. "And they want the France looks more like the country and the nation."

A call for more diversity

Few French towns are more diverse than Montreuil. About a quarter of the population is foreign-born. Many more are second- or third-generation immigrants.

Resident Emmanuel Flipo likes the town's international character. "Here is a mix of every people on the planet - the second city of Mali, for example, there's a lot of Malians. And they bring something very important to Montreuil…that mixture makes sense to me," he explained.

Another resident, French-Guinean Alain Sankhon, also feels comfortable in Montreuil.

Sankhon says minorities are increasingly represented in politics - not only in Montreuil, but across the country. He credits former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy for raising their profile.

But sociologist Michel Wieviorka says there is a lot more diversity in the private sector than in government. "If you look at the football team, you have people of all colors. If you look at…the artists, diversity exists. In business, you are going to have more diversity," he said. "And many people say, we are in favor of diversity - not for moral reasons, not for ethics, but for economic reasons."

But even French politics are changing. "All the political parties say something like, 'we have to introduce more diversity among our candidates.' They all say that. And they all try to have a certain number of candidates that can win," said Wieviorka.

But minority rights activist Louis Georges Tin says it is still not enough. A survey by Tin's association, CRAN, finds only 3 percent of this year's legislative candidates are of black or Arab origin.

"So now, what we need is a law - a law for diversity, exactly as we have in France for women and men [parity law] - that is what we need," Tin noted. "I don't think there's any other way to go and increase the number of black[s] and minorities in the parliament."

But affirmative action - or what the French call "positive discrimination" - is not popular here. Hammadi is also against it. He says he is confident he will win these elections. But he wants to be elected on his merits and not on his appearance.