'Sciences Po' Experiments with Affirmative Action

"Sciences Po" — the nickname for France's Institute for Political Studies — is trying out a modest version of affirmative action. Frank Browning reports on plans to enroll underprivileged, often immigrant students at the elite university known for its wealthy students.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

During the riots that hit many neighborhoods in France recently, few French politicians dared speak the words `affirmative action.' But despite the country's official policy of absolute equality, white faces dominate parliament. Only one non-white anchor has a spot on television, and there are very few minority business leaders. Five years ago France's most prestigious university, the Institute of Political Studies, known as Sciences-Po, decided it was time to change the overwhelmingly white, upper-class profile of its student body. It would reach out to other groups in French society. Frank Browning filed this profile of Sciences-Po.

FRANK BROWNING reporting:

Nabil Nasef(ph), whose parents emigrated from Algeria, lives in one of Paris' roughest neighborhoods. But two weekends ago, while cars were being torched and buildings burnt, he was coordinating a soccer match in one of Paris' richest neighborhoods. Nabil is a poster boy for Sciences-Po's efforts to recruit minority students.

Mr. NABIL NASEF: When Sciences-Po decided to choose kids like me to go to a great French school, they show that it's possible to have a good education in France. And so if I manage to walk as a civil servant or as an executive in a company, that will show that it's possible, which is really, really important because all these kids who burned the cars, they think that they don't have any future.

BROWNING: Nabil was one of five Sciences-Po students from the rioting neighborhoods invited to meet Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to talk about what could be done. Others came directly from the suburbs.

It's a mark of the acclaim Sciences-Po's outreach program has won that it alone among elite schools was chosen as a place to find people who could talk honestly about France's failure to integrate its poor minorities. Five years ago, when Sciences-Po launched its program of recruiting bright students from tough high schools, the idea of talking to the prime minister was about as likely as riding on Batman's cape. Sciences-Po's director, Richard Descoings, specifically targeted Seine-Saint-Denis on the edge of Paris, where the worst rioting took place.

Mr. RICHARD DESCOINGS (Director, Sciences-Po): From the Seine-Saint-Denis, we have 72 students. It's not a big number, but it's the demonstration that we can propose another future, another hope and that they can cross the barrier between Parisian ...(unintelligible) and the center of Paris. It's very pragmatic.

BROWNING: Descoings says he wants a program not only to help the excluded, but he also hopes it will change the nature of the country's governing elite.

Mr. DESCOINGS: Once they'll get their master degree, they have jobs within private companies, within public administrations, perhaps in politics, and this will change the face of France.

(Soundbite of crowd)

BROWNING: At the Les Sanjuan(ph) just north of Paris, most of the student faces are brown. But unlike at many high schools in immigrant neighborhoods, students here know all about Sciences-Po; over the last five years 50 of them have gone on to Sciences-Po after graduation. Now the annual autumn recruitment pitch draws a packed crowd. but on this day, because a state of emergency had just been declared, several television journalists came along, too. Surrounded by cameras and microphones, the principal, Andre Today(ph), told them that Sciences-Po had spread a new attitude in the school, as younger students watch their friends and older siblings go off to a top university.

Mr. ANDRE TODAY: (French spoken)

BROWNING: But Today has no tolerance for quota-style, affirmative-action programs.

Mr. TODAY: (French spoken)

BROWNING: `We're not for quotas,' he says. `If there's a quota, I would refuse. Ten percent for the Arabs, 10 percent for those from Mali, 10 percent for the gays--I am for the recognition of merit of each student, no matter the religious or ethnic heritage. Only merit should count.'

Most students at Sciences-Po go through a tough competitive exam, but for the 17 high schools targeted in poor neighborhoods, a second route involves an internal competition in each school, after which the winners are given a rigorous, all-day set of interviews conducted by Sciences-Po faculty and graduates from high government and business positions. Seran Delay(ph), the program's director, says recruiters never talk about race, ethnicity or religion. Even so, outreach programs like Sciences-Po's face stiff opposition from the opponents of reform, says Delay.

Mr. SERAN DELAY: (Through Translator) Those who are opposed to reform and try to block it use the American phrase `affirmative action,' which is poorly understood in France and taken to mean uniformed quota system, which, of course, isn't true. You must not underestimate this refusal to change in France.

BROWNING: To many conservatives and especially the hard-right followers of Jean-Marie Le Pen, any such programs degrade French cultural heritage and undermine the fundamental French idea that each individual must be treated equally, without reference to personal background, a political principle developed in the 18th century to hold the nation together and suppress breakaway movements. But like it or not, France is a polyglot society. Programs like Sciences-Po are very pragmatic, Delay believes. They're based on a win-win strategy that directly benefits the excluded minorities and the country as a whole.

Mr. DELAY: (Through Translator) There are other students that demonstrate that if you educate people, they're going to the good universities, they will find interesting jobs, and at the same time there will be more consumers, which will boost the economy. One of our problem is that there's underconsumption in the poor districts. If we can change that, expand our diversity, everyone in France will win. It's not that everyone shares the same pie. It's that the pie grows bigger and better, with more of us sharing the table.

BROWNING: Nua Busa-Busa(ph) is one of those who intends to take a good place at the table. She's 18. Her Algerian father is mostly unemployed. Her Moroccan mother is a maid. As a child, she slept in the same bed as her big sister and little brother.

Ms. NUA BUSA-BUSA: I hope I will work in a company. I like advertising, and maybe I will work on it, I hope. But when I entered Sciences-Po, at first I wanted to become a diplomat, but now I prefer the world of the companies and firms.

BROWNING: Of the 400 students in this year's freshman class, about 12 percent come from the minority outreach program, and in the journalism sequence, a third have minority backgrounds. Richard Descoings, Seran Delay and the board of Sciences-Po want those numbers to keep growing, and they point to several other elite universities that have started parallel programs, including France's leading business school. It is, they believe, the only way to crack open the tiny, tight elite who have ruled France for most of the last century. For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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