How multicultural is France? For the past few weeks the French media have rolled out the red carpet for the controversial author Eric Zemmour and his views on the population of France. His extreme points of view have been criticized, but this is not the first time we can question the place of minorities in French society. A few months ago, the Institute Choiseul released an interesting list of the 100 most promising economic leaders of France under the age of 40. The list was intended to highlight the young elites who will lead French society in the upcoming decades. However, there were only a few young people of non-European origin included. Given the increasing diversity of France’s multicultural society, this list raises the question of whether minorities will ever become part of the French economic elite.
The answer is no, if we only view the issue through the lens of demography. Multiculturalism may be highly visible on the streets of Paris, Marseille, and other French grandes villes, and the stars of French pop culture may be increasingly diverse, but the French population is still overwhelmingly of white European origin. Recent research suggests that only about 10 percent of the metropolitan French population has non-European origins. Moreover, many of these people are either young children or recent arrivals to France who are still getting adjusted to the country, further reducing the number of non-European origin people who could be considered likely future leaders of France. Given these numbers, it is perhaps not surprising that only a few people of non-European origin are on a list of 100 future economic leaders of France.
A long term presence
Moreover, to place the French demographic numbers in perspective, in my home country the United States, non-whites are almost 40 percent of the population and have been present in sizeable numbers since the earliest days of the nation in the 16thcentury. Yet even here it took a long time to develop a prominent set of non-white business leaders, who have only become visible at the highest levels of the mainstream corporate world in the past few decades.
Admittedly, there are different cultural dynamics in the two countries and unlike France the United States had legalized racial segregation into the 1960s. Nonetheless, the slow development of non-white economic leaders in mainstream American society may temper expectations for the rise of non-European-origin economic elites in France, where the diversity is much smaller and newer.
Another reason France’s future elites may appear monocultural is because the French education system and social hierarchy are structured to be monocultural and segregated in general. In other words, French people of all ethnic and national-origin backgrounds may find it difficult to access the economic elite if they were not born into that class. This point became clear in recent discussions after two French men won Nobel Prizes in 2014 (Patrick Modiano for Literature and Jean Tirole for Economics). Prior to the Nobel announcements, the past few years have been filled with media reports of political dysfunction and the ‘failing French economic model’. Therefore, the Nobel announcements were greeted with pleasure in France, because if France can still produce world-renowned artists and economic thinkers, then perhaps its education system and cultural milieu are still formidable. However, several experts in France have responded by noting that the two Nobel Prizes for France in 2014 are a testament only to the success of elite French society. According to these critics, the French education system is designed to produce a small and insular group of elites from similar backgrounds but the broader population is not necessarily being well-prepared to compete in the evolving globalized economy.
The future new middle-class
Moreover, although several studies note that immigrant-origin students perform as well as native-origin French students on many broad indicators of academic achievement (e.g. obtaining a BAC or enrolling in universities), immigrant-origin students are less likely to have access to the most valuable educational trajectories and face numerous forms of discrimination when they attempt to translate their academic qualifications into jobs. In short, French education is a hierarchical system that reproduces a narrow set of elites in general. So in that context, it is not surprising that a limited number of non-European-origin young people (who face additional constraints due to their origins) have entered elite society.
Finally, it is worth remembering that although France’s young economic elite is still more monocultural than the society as a whole, the 100 people mentioned in the report by this Institute are not the only young leaders in France. There is a growing middle and upper-middle class of non-European origin in France and this group should continue to grow in future years. Many of those in this rising elite have combined their professional success with political and civic activism. They have formed new organizations such as Club Averroes and Club XXIème Siècle to promote the cause of diversity in the French private sector. French society (like all societies) is changing. It may not be changing as fast as some would like. But if Institute Choiseul makes another list of “Les 100 Leaders de Demain” in 2024 or 2034, presumably it would look very different from the one in 2014.
credit: Diversity Mask, the George A. Spiva Center.