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July|August 2004
Crème de la Crème By Sasha Polakow-Suransky
Blitzkrieg By Margot Sanger-Katz

Crème de la Crème

How a few dozen immigrant students at an elite French college created a crise constitutionnelle and still got good report cards.

By Sasha Polakow-Suransky

MASSOUD HADIZADEH-BOUROUJANI SURPRISED EVERYONE at his high school in the drab northern suburbs of Paris when he was admitted last summer to the city's elite Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris for his undergraduate studies. "Teachers at school didn't believe it," he recalled as he sat on the veranda of a posh café. "I didn't have the reputation of being very serious."

The name Sorbonne is known the world over. To the French, however, the nearby Sciences-Po, as Bouroujani's university is known, is the first rung of choice on the ladder to power and prestige. For the French equivalent of Harvard, Sciences-Po is easy to miss; its nondescript buildings sit on a narrow street, overshadowed by government ministries and designer clothing stores. But the school counts among its alumni current French president, Jacques Chirac, a number of past prime ministers, and half the CEOs of France's 200 largest companies. It's also the alma mater of Albert Camus, Christian Dior, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In other words, a Sciences-Po degree is a ticket to the aristocracy.

The school is also overwhelmingly white, particularly in comparison with top American colleges. In this sense, as in many others, its 4,000 students mirror the upper echelons of French society. Racial and ethnic diversity is mostly limited to the country's sports arenas and graffiti-covered housing projects. The national legislature has no Muslims and only a few minority members from overseas territories like Martinique and Guadeloupe.

None of this has been viewed as a problem by the political establishment. Fiercely committed to a secular republic, the French have traditionally stressed national citizenship rather than identification with ethnic or religious groups. The census does not collect information about race, ethnicity, or religion. Public expressions of ethnic and religious affiliation have long been anathema to French secularism, or laïcité. When the French go to England, they're surprised to see turban-wearing Sikhs working at airport security checkpoints and veiled Muslim policewomen walking the London beat.

Meanwhile, however, France's minority population has climbed to nearly 10 percent. Many of these new citizens are second-generation immigrants whose parents came from the country's former North African colonies. The rapidly changing demographics are colliding head-on with traditional French assumptions. Which explains how Massoud Hadizadeh-Bouroujani, whose parents emigrated from Iran in the early 1980s, landed at Sciences-Po.

Bouroujani's mother is a child-care worker and his father is unemployed. At 19, he is confident and opinionated; he turned down a $5 cup of coffee, recoiling at the price. Bouroujani got into Sciences-Po via an admissions track that targets students from poor, immigrant-filled neighborhoods, mostly on the outskirts of Paris. In the fall of 2001, the university selected a small number of students from these "priority education zones," or ZEPs, on the basis of their performance in interviews rather than on the grueling two-day written exam that other applicants take.

The National Interuniversity Union, France's leading right-wing student union, took Sciences-Po to court as soon as the first 18 ZEP students enrolled. A close ally of the ruling conservative party, the union argued that by creating an admissions track that is open to certain students based only on where they live, the university was violating the French constitutional guarantee of equal opportunity. Last November, a Paris appeals court ruled that the ZEP program could continue with minor modifications. But the decision hasn't stopped UNI activists from demanding that Sciences-Po dismantle it. Out of 780 entering students, two or three dozen not chosen overtly on the basis of race may not sound like much of an affirmative action program, or much of a threat to the old social hierarchy. But to hear the French talk, it's a crise constitutionnelle.

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION IS COMMONLY TRANSLATED into French as discrimination positive. But that blunt term is unpopular because it evokes images of quotas and differential treatment. While Sciences-Po's slogan for ZEP is "excellence in diversity," the diversity is supposed to be purely socioeconomic. As the program's critics correctly point out, however, choosing students from poor neighborhoods quickly becomes a proxy for choosing them based on race and ethnicity. Of the 37 ZEP students admitted in 2003, two-thirds have at least one foreign-born parent, mostly from Algeria or Morocco.

In some ways, ZEP resembles the policy of Texas, which since 1998 has offered automatic admission to Texas universities to students in the top ten percent of the graduating class of any high school in the state. Because so many high schools are racially segregated, the Texas plan admits substantial numbers of black and Latino students. Still, it's race-neutral and it ostensibly uses the same admissions criteria for everyone, which makes it appealing to conservatives. The difference in earning A's at a top high school and A's at a bad one may lurk beneath the surface, but it isn't easily measured.

ZEP, on the other hand, presents for attack a two-track admissions system. The alternate route of oral interviews is "totally opposed to the French conception of equality," UNI leader Olivier Vial said from his office in Paris's tony 16th arrondissement. The rigorous entrance exam "is a French tradition," said Vial. "For us, it allows for the most equal opportunity."

The ZEP interviews, however, test skills that have a direct payoff in the Sciences-Po curriculum, in which oral presentations play a huge part. The interviews are conducted by political heavyweights such as the former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the illustrious historian René Remond, who is Sciences-Po's president. Any topic is fair game, from the legitimacy of the Iraq invasion to French unemployment policy. The tag-team questioning resembles the combative interviews used to select American students for a Marshall or Rhodes scholarship. "They block you, they completely change the subject, they cut you off," recalled Bouroujani. "If you say something with too much certainty, they say, 'Are you sure?' "

The oral interviews favor qualities like "maturity, personality, and originality," in the words of Cyril Delhay, who runs ZEP, and those traits serve students well at Sciences-Po. On a recent Thursday morning, the school's foyer bustled with stylishly dressed students hurrying to class, typing away on their laptops, or sipping coffee and chain-smoking. Some wore suits as they ran off to interviews with consulting firms and investment banks.

ZEP students generally blend in. They take the same classes as other students; there is no tracking based on high school performance nor any option to take a reduced course load. Their average performance is just below that of the student body as a whole, with a pass rate of 82 percent compared to 90 percent of students overall for the 2001-2002 academic year. Many ZEP students enter believing that they have a serious academic deficit and then let go of that assumption. As one respondent to a school survey put it, "At the beginning, I had the impression that I was really behind the other students in terms of the level of my knowledge, but as time passed I realized that three quarters of the students were just faking it."

Still, the different admissions criteria are in place because of the advantages enjoyed by well-to-do applicants. Close to 80 percent of the students come from the professional classes while 5 percent come from working-class and farming backgrounds, according to a recent study by two Sciences-Po doctoral students. The upper-class students have parents (not to mention grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins) who speak French. They go to the country's best high schools. And they share a badge of privilege that directly boosts their chances on the entrance exam: They almost always take courses that prepare them for the test.

The preparatory courses train students to write essays about abstract questions that aren't on the standard high school curriculum, questions such as, "Why is democracy always in danger?" Some courses are offered by the government at no charge, but only to those with top grades and an impressive showing on the high school graduation exam, or baccalaureat. The private courses are even more selective: Only 40 percent of those who apply get into the ones that prepare students exclusively for the Sciences-Po exam. The lucky chosen pay 1,500 euros, or $1,800, for 125 hours of instruction over six weeks. A nine-month course costs 6,500 euros, or $7,700—about 25 percent of the gross annual income of the average French family.

In January, an advisory body to President Jacques Chirac came out against discrimination positive, calling instead for 10 new government-funded prep courses. That matches the populist approach of UNI. "Do we want 30 students at Sciences-Po just to parade them everywhere on TV, or do we really want to give people the means?" UNI's Vial asked.

But increasing the number of free prep courses isn't likely to be a panacea, according to Mohammed Chirani. A 26-year-old Sciences-Po student who lived in Algeria between the ages of 10 and 18, Chirani in the past has worked with UNI. He took the written exam to get into Sciences-Po and opposes a separate admissions track. Immigrant kids, he said, should have "the ambition to get in through the front door and not through the window."

More prep courses, however, will mean little without real equality, according to Chirani. France's minorities face rampant job discrimination, a rate of unemployment that is four times the national average, and housing and school segregation. "When you find yourself in a school where everyone is named Mohammed, Mustafa, and Kemal, you have a hard time imagining 'the republic,' " Chirani said. His solution is more public investment in secondary school and college, including grants for books and living expenses. He admitted that his ideas would be costly to implement, but said that what's really lacking is political will. "We forget the hardest reforms and we go after scapegoats or reforms that are just window dressing."

In comparison with Chirani's wish list, ZEP seems like a Band-Aid. At times, Sciences-Po administrators sound as if the program is about adding color to the school's brochure and to the corporate elite. Many French companies see diversity as a business imperative that they've been working on (and mostly failing at) for years. Now employers like L'Oréal can serve as parrains, or godfathers, to ZEP students by paying for their books and giving them internships. The companies are pleased "that Sciences-Po assumes responsibility for all of this acculturation," Delhay said, because "this allows for a very quick integration into professional life." That doesn't sound much like the program's stated goals of social justice and democracy.

The only major politician who sides with the corporate world in favor of discrimination positive is Nicolas Sarkozy, France's minister of finance, who seems an unlikely standard-bearer. Until re­cently Sarkozy served as the interior minister responsible for security, and in that post he cracked down on would-be immigrants along France's borders and on street crime by immigrant youth. But Sarkozy is positioning himself to succeed Jacques Chirac as president. In backing ZEP, he argues that the state must intervene if pure meritocracy doesn't produce a diverse elite. "If we want our fellow citizens of immigrant extraction to want to integrate themselves, they must have role models other than in the world of soccer," Sarkozy told a TV audience last year.

Sarkozy's rhetoric may be self-serving but it's also farsighted. "He's betting that this kind of problem is not going to disappear from French public debate and that he will be remembered as bold enough to make it emerge and defend it openly," said Daniel Sabbagh, a Sciences-Po researcher.

MEANWHILE, AS THE NUMBER OF ZEP STUDENTS HAS GROWN to more than three dozen, the graffiti denouncing the program has all but disappeared. Naima Mouffok, a short, feisty 19-year-old who comes from a working-class Algerian family, said that she's not bothered by the substantive criticism of ZEP that she some­times still hears. Mouffok hopes to train as a magistrate, and she doesn't have time to worry about what other students think of affirmative action. "There are people who talk about it, but who don't necessarily live it. We live it," she said.

At home, Mouffok faces a tougher crowd. She said the friends who haven't continued their education beyond high school warn her, "You're gonna become like them . . . you're gonna be formatted." But ZEP students don't seem to hesitate because of taunts from their old copains and they say their success motivates others. Friends who couldn't care less about politics and don't know much about Sciences-Po have asked Massoud Hadizadeh-Bouroujani if there is a similar institute for the study of math and science. "The idea has been planted" with his old friends, Bouroujani said. If ZEP "is going to change the academic background of three or four or five students outside the program, that's already good."

In their predominantly working-class roots, ZEP students differ from many of the black and Latino beneficiaries of affirmative action in the United States, who already hail from the middle class. They come from immigrant communities where their success is a matter of intense pride. The same friends who accuse Mouffok of being "formatted," she said, also tell her to "show them what we're like—that we're not the same, but that we can succeed in the same way." Sciences-Po's program may not be the fairest or most universal way to diversify France's elite. But most ZEP students say it's better than any short-term alternative they can think of. "It's not going to be perfect," Mouffok said. "But it's a way to reach democratization. It's a way to make things move."

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect.

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