STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The upcoming inauguration of America's first black president has prompted some self-reflection in France. The French used to consider themselves much more enlightened than Americans when it comes to race relations. Barack Obama's election underscores France's own shortcomings in building a colorblind society. This morning NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has the last part of her series on Europe's treatment of minorities.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: These schoolchildren are visiting an exhibit. It marks the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination, and a young guide explains racism.
Unidentified Guide: (French spoken)
POGGIOLI: Racism, he says, is when you consider a person of different origin or skin color to be basically inferior. Jocasta Matos, one of the exhibit organizers, says France today is not as bad as the American South in the '50s, but racism is still strong.
Ms. JOCASTA MATOS (Organizer of Exhibit Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King's Assassination, Paris): (Through Translator) It is tough here for all minorities. They don't beat us, but they insult us. They show disdain for us. This is perhaps even worse than being beaten, this sense of not being welcome, not accepted. We fight against this.
POGGIOLI: And the Obama victory has jolted minorities here into demanding a greater voice in society. After the U.S. election, Patrick Lozes, founder of one of the first black associations in France, says he spoke directly to President Nicolas Sarkozy, demanding minorities be included on party slates for the upcoming European Parliament election.
Mr. PATRICK LOZES (French Politician; Member, Union for French Democracy): (Through Translator) What's so extraordinary about Barack Obama's election is that this is the first time we didn't hear only negative things about us. Young people now believe they can conquer the world. It has given them a new consciousness of their possibilities. A black can be an ambassador, a doctor, anything. We must nurture this equal rights movement.
POGGIOLI: Today the French political, academic, and media establishments are lily-white. It's illegal here to gather data according to race and ethnicity, so it's impossible to measure the minority population's exact size. It's estimated at between 10 and 15 percent of the total 63 million. There are black parliamentarians from overseas territories, but only one from continental France, and hardly any blacks or people of Arab origin among 36,000 mayors.
And even those few who do break barriers still confront what historian Pap Ndiaye calls "hidden racism." A black professor at the School for Advanced Study of Social Sciences, he describes what happens when he goes to the university library.
Professor PAP NDIAYE (History, School for Advanced Study of Social Sciences; Author, "La Condition Noire"): The person will look at the ID and scratch the picture as if this ID was a fake ID, you see, as if there was, you know, some kind of bizarreness in the fact of seeing a black man with a faculty ID.
(Soundbite of French music)
POGGIOLI: France was not always so hostile. Paris was once a haven for many black Americans, writers such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, and the great entertainer Josephine Baker. That was the heyday of Negritude, a black pride movement spearheaded by the Senegalese poet Leopold Sedar Senghor, which was embraced as part of French cultural identity. But, Pap Ndiaye says, society turned white again when the colonies sought independence in the 1960s.
Professor NDIAYE: Many French thought that the black Africans were not grateful to all the good things which French civilization - medicine and schools and blah, blah, blah - brought to their areas and populations.
POGGIOLI: Today activists have found that 55 percent of blacks in France have university degrees, but most get only low-skilled jobs like security guards at supermarkets or janitors.
Mr. YAZID SABEG (French Businessman): The French society is frozen. You know, the elite protecting itself and also its children.
POGGIOLI: Businessman Yazid Sabeg is a self-made millionaire whose parents were Algerian immigrants. The day after Barack Obama was elected, Sabeg released a manifesto. It urges adoption of affirmative action policies, still a taboo because they clash with French ideals of egalitarianism.
Mr. SABEG: What is happening in the States, it's a lesson for us. We have to start a process to transform the French society and to admit that we have to correct the inequality.
POGGIOLI: Sabeg says the most visible examples of inequality are the banlieues - large, dilapidated housing projects outside the big cities. Three years ago they were rocked by riots. For weeks, minority youth protested lack of opportunities. Sabeg laments no improvements have been made. The impoverished population lives there in increasing segregation.
Mr. SABEG: And this is very dangerous. It is not the French tradition to have ghettos. And you have millions and millions of peoples, you have three generations of population in these suburbs. This is a social bomb.
POGGIOLI: It's not easy to reach the banlieues - long train rides from Paris. Once there, the sense of hopelessness is palpable. Unemployment among young people reaches 40 percent. Many kids don't bother to finish high school. Here in Gennevilliers, tough-looking guys hang out at an empty shopping mall. Only a few rundown stores are still in business. The mood is resentment toward outsiders. But one topic brings joy and makes them smile - the fact that Americans actually chose a black for president.
Mr. KAKY BROWN (French Rapper): (French spoken)
POGGIOLI: A rapper who calls himself Kaky Brown says kids here are lucky if they can get a job as a street cleaner. He raps in quiet desperation.
Mr. BROWN: (Rapping in French)
POGGIOLI: We're in a ghetto like Soweto, no way to escape, he sings. They talk about quotas for us but never do a thing. We're stuck in misery, we're desperate, Kaky raps. There is so much violence, no respect for us. What we need is a revolution, he sings. We need revolution.
As interior minister in 2005, Sarkozy described the young rioters as "scum." But last month, in the wake of the Obama election and growing tensions in the banlieues, President Sarkozy announced new measures to bring diversity to elitist institutions, the civil service, politics, and the media.
President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Through Translator) How can we talk about a republic when your success at school and in professional life depends not on merit but largely on your social origin, the neighborhood where you live, your name, or the color of your skin?
POGGIOLI: Sarkozy also appointed Yazid Sabeg as diversity czar. The millionaire son of Algerian immigrants knows how hard his job will be.
Mr. SABEG: Reality to accept to give more to the people who needs more, especially their origin is foreign - black or Arabs - I think it's not still in the mind. There is big resistance on this.
POGGIOLI: But for the first time in France, concepts such as racism and discrimination are entering the national debate. Sabeg is convinced that step by step, the establishment stranglehold on French institutions will be broken. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
INSKEEP: You can view Sylvia's earlier reports in this series by going to npr.org.