In France, a Backwards Legal System Makes Minorities Invisible


The lack of data based on ethnic or racial indicators in France is not only a limitation to effective policy-making, but also a favor to nationalist movements.


As the yellow vests go into their 13th act, monopolies push consumer prices up, monopsonies prevent wage growth, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez carves out social democrats’ place in the democratic party, and Thomas Piketty finds his place as an economic rockstar for millennials, wealth inequality has become the hottest topic among young economists. Unfortunately, in France, the potential gains of research in economic inequality are limited due to an absolutist interpretation of equality that stands with the current legal order.

The economic inequality that plagues western societies and political debate today is often referred to as “structural” – one perpetuated by our economic systems due to the unfortunate or advantageous predispositions of certain “accidents of birth”. More specifically, wealth inequality due to differences in endowments at birth can be divided into two categories: Firstly, intergenerational inequality arises from the inter-generational transmission of economic differences that occurs when, for example, children inherit the wealth of their parents. This transmission may also take the form of child rearing, favors and access to a parent’s network. Secondly, there is categorial inequality, that is the inequality between different social groups such as gender, ethnicity, nation, caste or religion which may put you at a disadvantage in gaining financial or human capital throughout your life – the pay gap between men and women across many sectors would fall into this category.

In a lecture on economic inequality given in November 2018, our SciencesPo economics professor, Guillaume Plantin, provided students with a brief comment on the issue of data collection on both intergenerational or categorical inequality in the country of Liberté, Fraternité et Egalité; “there exists virtually no data collection on income and wealth inequality based on ethnic or religious indicators in France because researchers are not allowed to collect it.” Many students may not have given much thought to this comment in the moment, but it invites a much-needed reflection on how economic literature on categorical and intergenerational inequality in France is hampered by an outdated legal system.

First, some history

It has always been central to the republican model and the French ideals of equality and citizenship that the state refrain from making distinctions based on race, ethnicity or religion. The principle has its roots in the revolution of 1789 and the resulting Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and, since 1872, the constitutional principle of equality has been interpreted as prohibiting the government from collecting data or statistics on the racial, ethnic or religious backgrounds of its citizens, in any context. The most recent French Constitution, adopted in 1958, incorporates this principle as well, prohibiting all distinctions based on racial identity.[1] A 1978 law on “data files, processing and individual liberties” furthermore explicitly forbids the collection and processing of personal data that reveals, directly or indirectly, the racial and ethnic origins, or religion, of any persons.[2] The collection of data regarded as commonplace in other multicultural countries such as the United States or the Netherlands is therefore barred in France. Consequently, it is not possible for any economist, or other academics for that matter, to research economic inequality based on ethnicity or religion. Research on the impact of categorical inequality on lifetime capital accumulation or the variations in the inter-generational transmission of wealth across ethnicities therefore remain limited.

Lack of data on ethnic inequality

Despite many important contributions to economic literature on income and wealth inequality across nations by French economists, most famously Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the 21st Century”, when it comes to research on income inequality within France, they seem limited to the distinction between capital and labour income, geographic boundaries and the categorical inequalities of gender and age. Indeed, a recent paper by Paris School of Economics’ Thomas Piketty, Bertrand Garbitini and Jonathan Goupille-Lebret seem to reflect this. Their paper, “Income Inequality in France, 1900-2014”, draws evidence from distributional national accounts, that is fiscal data, national accounts and survey data, in breaking down French income and wealth inequality into “labor income vs capital income”, “age” and “gender” in the period 1900 to 2014. [3]  Though the paper brings important insights into the evolution of wealth and income disparities within these indicators, it is unfortunate that such gifted economists are not able to work with data based on ethnicity – or even religion. In multicultural France, it is crucial to understand the distribution of capital and income across all social categories, be they ethnic, religious or based on gender, to be able to steer public policy in a way that reduces inequalities due to “accidents of birth.” Indeed, as a result of the lack of ethnic data, French anti-discrimination policies rather refer to geographic indicators such as specific suburbs or simply to non-racial categories such as “immigrants”, even when the concerned populations might be third or fourth generation French citizens.[4]

One need only look across the Atlantic to see the benefits of such data collection. In the United States, where economic literature on racial/ethnic inequality is abundant, racial inequalities have been found to have manifested in society in ways ranging from racial disparities in wealth, poverty rates and educational opportunities to unemployment rates, and incarceration rates. This may be similar in France, but as the legal interpretation of equality stands now, we may never know. To correct this, France must revise its legal code to fit a less absolutist interpretation of equality that allows for data collection based on the controversial indicators.

At the bidding of the right

Another substantive reason for why this outdated legal system needs an immediate repair is that it may do the bidding of nationalist movements. The lack of accurate demographic statistics has repeatedly led to many inconsistent, unofficial numbers showing in news and literature, such as former Head of the Population Surveys Branch at The National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies François Héran’s claim that there were 8.4 million Muslims in France in 2017[5] despite Pew Research Center estimating only 4.7 million the same year.[6] In reality, many such statistics are often based on the notion that descendants of people who have migrated from the Maghreb and North Africa are Muslims.[7] When accurate demographics are lacking, it is difficult to get a clear picture of the actual multiculturalism of the French society. That is not only a limitation to effective policy-making, but it also a favor to nationalist movements who can cite many different numbers on minority populations without an academic consensus on what is factual. Thinking of our Sciences Po education on Benedict Anderson’s analysis on nationalism, one is tempted to conclude that it is easier to imagine a community, when one can only imagine.

The issue’s political and cultural dimension is perhaps best observed by French sociologist Laurent Thénevot who wrote “statistics by ethnic categories are dangerous because they stigmatize people and are likely to support xenophobic or racist behavior, and statistics by ethnic categories are necessary to fight against discrimination.”[8] Despite this paradox, it would be unfortunate if an absolutist interpretation of equality renders the socioeconomic status of certain minorities unknown, because that would limit the very pursuit of equality between ethnicities within France in the long-run.


[1] 958 CONST. art. 1 (FRN) (assuring equality before the law of all citizens without distinctions based on origin, race or religion).

[2] Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (1978). ACT N°78-17 OF 6 JANUARY 1978 ON INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY, DATA FILES AND CIVIL LIBERTIES. France: CNIL, https://www.cnil.fr/sites/default/files/typo/document/Act78-17VA.pdf.

[3] Garbinti, B., Goupille -Lebret, J. and Piketty, T. (2018). Income Inequality in France, 1900-2014: Evidence from Distributional National Accounts (DINA). SSRN Electronic Journal.

[4] Gilbert, J. (2016). How French law makes minorities invisible. [online] The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/how-french-law-makes-minorities-invisible-66723 [Accessed 13 Jan. 2019].

[5] Baumard, M. (2018). Immigration : faut-il s’attendre à une « ruée vers l’Europe » ? La réponse des démographes. [online] Le Monde.fr. Available at: https://www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2018/09/12/non-l-afrique-subsaharienne-ne-va-pas-envahir-l-europe_5353671_3214.html [Accessed 15 Jan. 2019].

[6]Hackett, C. (2017). 5 facts about the Muslim population in Europe. [online] pewresearch.org. Available at: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/11/29/5-facts-about-the-muslim-population-in-europe/ [Accessed 24 Jan. 2019].

[7] Mamou, Y. (2017). France’s Muslim Demographic Future. [online] GatestoneInstitute.org. Available at: https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/9964/france-muslim-future [Accessed 16 Jan. 2019].

[8] Why France Needs to Collect Data on Racial Identity… In a French Way, 31 Hastings Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 735 (2008)

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