Race has always been a provocative subject when the needs of science and statistics intersect with politics. Now that debate is once again heating up in France, as the planned introduction of “ethnic statistics” has caused a fierce dispute that touches the very heart of French republicanism.
According to a law that dates back to the French Revolution, and reconfirmed in 1978, French government officials are forbidden to collect information about a citizen’s ethnic or racial origins, whether real or alleged, when conducting a census or other efforts to gathering statistical information on the population.
There are two main reasons for this. The first is the republican principle, enshrined in the Constitution, that recognizes only citizens and does not accept any distinction among them due to origin, race, or religion. The second reason is historic: the painful and still vivid memories of the Vichy regime of WWII, when citizens’ “racial” and religious origin was stamped on national identification documents and was used as a key tool in rounding up French Jews for delivery to the death camps.
Today, the issue has returned to the forefront because of a new fight against racial discrimination, which appears to require more accurate measures of social inequality. Existing public statistics, it is believed, do not provide enough relevant information to analyze the possibility of discrimination in employment or housing. After all, without appropriate statistics, it is difficult to prove discrimination.