Diversity Policies in France = National Security Solution

France Peace

As an American who has lived in France and returned from a trip to Paris just days before the horrific terrorist attacks, what happened in France hit close to home. I speak French, love its culture and people, and have many close friends living there today. It’s a very special place that I love and visit often.

What disturbs me the most is the fact that I had walked the same streets where the attacks took place. I’ve eaten in countless Parisian cafés – many like the ones targeted by the terrorists. Anyone could have been an unlucky victim. It’s a chilling reminder of not just how fleeting life can be, but how we all have a responsibility to improve society for the better.

So what can we learn from the chaos and sadness? What are the helpful lessons?

Diversity Policies – An Anti-Terrorism Solution

The Paris attacks reinforce my belief in diversity – it’s an imperative for national security. Embracing diversity goes beyond doing “the right thing” in the workplace and schools. It’s about more than promoting productivity and sustainable economic growth.

If we want to survive and diminish our exposure to terrorism, we need long-term solutions that discourage people from becoming terrorists in the first place. We need to strategically address ongoing conflicts and inequality faced by minority populations. It’s time to get with the diversity program and implement well-designed domestic policies that promote inclusion.

Countries need real diversity strategies that bring their minority groups into the fold. This includes policies addressing poverty, education, employment, wealth, and equality.

We need to view diversity policies and racial harmony as a national security issue and not get sidetracked by discussions solely focused on class and whether social programs are entitlements. The reality is diversity and comprehensive approaches to embracing multiculturalism at the policy level can save lives. The sooner we realize this, the better.

France’s Rocky Relationship Embracing Its Diversity

France might have been a refuge for black Americans like James Baldwin and Josephine Baker, but France has trouble accepting its own minorities. Having lived in Paris and the South of France (which is close to North Africa and has a strong Muslim population), I’ve seen firsthand how the country struggles with prejudice, racism, and equality.

I’ve heard the prejudicial rhetoric spewed by its politicians. I’ve seen stores with mascots and products featuring a Sambo, and “American Cowboy” stores decorated with Confederate flags. I’ve watched news stories about innocent Arab and African immigrants randomly attacked and even murdered by people supporting the Front National political party – arguably a racist group with strong anti-immigrant views and coded language about minorities and Muslims.

I’ve lived through a French presidential election where Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was then the head of the Front National, won 15% of the country’s votes. Unfortunately, the Front National’s rhetoric is resonating with more French people. Its power has only grown over the past two decades – as evidenced by Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, winning nearly 18% of the votes in the 2012 presidential election.

Additionally, I’ve witnessed minorities stopped on the metro in Paris and harassed for their papers while “the real French people” or the “Français de souche” are left alone. I’ve watched the debates unfold over whether Muslim girls should be allowed to wear headscarves to school – forcing girls and their families to choose between their religious beliefs and receiving an education – or whether Jewish and Muslim children should be forced to eat pork in school as their only option for a school meal.

Intolerance & Marginalization = Fodder for Homegrown Terrorism

The biggest wakeup call is that the attacks in Paris were mainly carried out by Europeans – people who were born and raised in France. They were homegrown terrorists and domestic enemies.

Many of France’s ethnic minorities live in the suburbs (the “banlieues”) – where people are typically poor, underemployed, and less educated. France’s underclass is often concentrated in these banlieues, where many feel like outsiders and are excluded from French society. These minorities have historically faced discrimination and prejudice.

The attacks illustrate how young men floundering in life with few opportunities – grappling with feelings of anger and rejection – might decide to go Kamikaze on their fellow countrymen. Arguably, it’s the chronic and ongoing poverty, harassment, discrimination, marginalization, and extreme underemployment in Arab and Muslim communities in France that foster a breeding ground for the handful of malleable and impressionable people who can be swayed by extremist groups.

Exclusion and intolerance are dangerous. While there are never any guarantees, if these domestic terrorists felt they had been a part of France’s social fabric and were welcomed as equal Frenchmen, maybe they would have been less inclined to see those around them as mortal enemies.

France’s legacy of marginalizing many of its minorities is harming its national security.

France’s Secularism Shields Discrimination

There are deep cultural and legal traditions at play in France that lead some politicians to adopt strict secular positions. While both the United States and France have separation of church and state policies, this forms a critical pillar of French civil society. Its value and policy of secularism is known as “laïcité.”

Any government embrace or intervention in religious affairs is discouraged to prevent government favoritism of one religion over another. However, some politicians are so rigid in enforcing secularism that it leads to some groups being marginalized or forced to choose between their faith and participating fully in public life.

Arguably, some racists, xenophobes, and politicians also use the shield of “laïcité” to hide intolerance or restrict the religious expression of Muslims and other religions minorities. They use the French principle of secularism to protect themselves from accusations of hate. If there is no government recognition of religion, there can be “no discrimination” against religion when universal policies banning wearing religious attire in school serve a de facto purpose of actually targeting girls with headscarves and boys with Yarmulkes.

Strict “Laïcité” = Hindrance to Comprehensive Diversity Strategies

Another disconcerting consequence of “laïcité” is its related yet separate principle of equality for all citizens. This theoretically sounds desirable, but the French might take its enforcement a step too far. The government’s official position is that all citizens are equal, and thus to collect any data on a citizen’s race, ethnicity, or religion would be discriminatory.

Just as the government does not want to favor one religion over another, it does not want to favor one group of people. This eschews the idea that there are different factions of French people. While this sounds preferable in principle, this idea does not work well for France in practice. There are clear socio-economic differences between France’s different races and ethnicities. The unemployment rate for young African immigrants was 32% in 2012 compared to 16% of those without immigrant roots, and minorities have significantly lower high school graduation rates.

Not tracking or collecting data on the diversity of France’s people is problematic. If the French government tries to develop diversity policies and strategies – whether or not as a part of an overall national security plan – they will need empirical demographic data and key statistics.

For Americans, this might be hard to comprehend and it may seem as though the French government is just turning a blind eye to its societal problems and multicultural population. However, it is crucial to remember that “laïcité” is a strong value of the French Republic that dates back to the 19th Century. As France works to address its challenges as a 21st century multiethnic nation, it is starting to loosen the rigid enforcement of these values and principles.

Collecting statistics on ethnic demographics will help French authorities better understand the inequalities in French society and where citizens are marginalized. Having this data will help politicians draft policies to combat inequality, isolation, poverty, and indirectly Islamic extremism. In the 21st century, analytics and empirical data are powerful tools to help locate, track, and solve societal problems.

Knee-Jerk Reactions Towards Exclusion = More Vulnerable to Attack

France needs to pursue policies that minimize the likelihood of future attacks. Its reaction should go beyond exploring whether to increase security measures, expand domestic policing, and increase overseas airstrikes. France has an opportunity to combat domestic terrorism by responding with new and innovative counterterrorism measures. It should also focus on discouraging its citizens from joining radical terrorist groups.

However, if these attacks do nothing but galvanize racist and far-right conservatives against ethnic minorities, this knee-jerk reaction could serve as a catalyst for future attacks and create more domestic terrorists.

In the wake of this horrific tragedy, France needs to implement policies and programs that integrate its impoverished minorities living there – many of whom who have lived in France for generations. Developing systematic and long-term approaches to improving the quality of life of France’s minority population can make everyone in France less vulnerable.

America Can Learn from This Too

The United States has not solved its own issues of race and diversity by any measure. America has significant work to do as well. You only have to turn on the news to see our own intractable race problems play out and repeat themselves like a broken record.

The US needs a real diversity strategy since our national security also depends on it. This country should start addressing its own issues of poverty, access to education, unemployment, and inequality. We need to help people of all races, ethnicities, and classes thrive – including our immigrants.

We are already beset by a deluge of domestic problems. The last thing America needs is to have another problem on its hands. America should learn from the French and these recent attacks to prevent history from repeating itself on our soil.


The Azara Group (TAG) is a consulting firm that promotes the development of leaders in an increasingly competitive and diverse marketplace – providing strategy consulting services and leadership training services to advance professional and life success. TAG leverages expertise in career strategy, diversity, negotiation skills, and business acumen to provide strategic advice and consulting services to help people and organizations get what they want, achieve their goals, and advance their business and career objectives. TAG also helps companies better attract, retain, and promote diverse talent, and develop robust diversity platforms and strategies to create a more inclusive workplace.

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