Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Socialists and Diversity


Hollande and Royal may disagree about a number of things, but on one critical issue, they appear to see eye to eye: the importance of Argenteuil.

Following Hollande’s visit there on Tuesday, Royal is now scheduled to make an appearance tomorrow in this interesting suburb north of Paris. Like Hollande, she will go to show support for Faouzi Lamdaoui, the Socialist Party’s candidate in this 5th district of Val d’Oise (see post of June 12).

During his visit, speaking to a small crowd at the “dalle” housing complex, Hollande stressed that Faouzi, a Muslim of Algerian background, represents not only the Socialist Party, but also, the diversity of France.

This emphasis on “diversity” comes at a time when France is debating the potential benefits and dangers of reform that would enable researchers, government agencies and the like, to have at their disposal more nuanced statistical information on the ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds of France’s citizens. Royal, when asked in February what she thought of the proposals for increased “statistics of diversity,” responded that it was a “delicate” issue. She cautioned that although the objective of such nuanced statistics would be to fight discrimination, and therefore a good one, that there was nevertheless a risk that citizens would be “classified” in ways that run counter to France’s “republican values” (Le Monde Feb. 24).

Several months ago, Amartya Sen was here in Paris to talk about identity, among other things. When asked by a French economist in the audience the same question posed to Royal, Sen responded that more information was always better, but that it then depended, of course, on what one did with it. We might add that it depends, also, on how categories of classification are determined in the first place, and by whom.

For any good Weberian, research that exposes “inconvenient facts,” especially uncomfortable ones, is laudable. And in many ways, such exposure is what the proponents of a “statistics of diversity” would like to accomplish, in order to help fight discrimination. But Weber also asked us to remain aware of the unintended consequences of human action. The publication of statistical research certainly carries with it unintended consequences.

Back in the US, Robert Putnam’s new research on diversity in America, some of which is discussed in this weekend’s New York Time’s Magazine, suggests the complexity of the problem. For Bob’s analysis of the US census’ standard racial categories of diversity, and other data on social capital that he has gathered over the past six years, show that living in a “highly diverse” American city leads to lower trust among residents and general social withdrawal. Diversity, to put it bluntly, leads to anomie. But then Bob also shows that some communities are able to (re)construct more encompassing identities, leading citizens to feel more comfortable with diversity, and to overcome the problems of social withdrawal. Delicate, to say the least, and certainly worthy of serious debate.

Royal’s visit tomorrow is meant to signal to the residents of Argenteuil (and elsewhere) that diversity is a reality of the Fifth Republic, and one that deserves national recognition and representation. But whether diversity needs to be specified, categorized, measured and analyzed, the way it has been in the US, is something France may well debate for a very long time.

Cindy Skach