United States and France [are] two countries…generally viewed as polar opposites as far as the political legitimacy and legal validity of race-based classifications are concerned. Based on an in-depth study of recent programs designed to increase the “diversity” of the student body in selective institutions of higher education, I will argue that French and U.S. policies are currently converging around the instrument of indirect (and often implicit) affirmative action.
[W]hat might be the causal mechanisms involved [in this convergence]? There is not even a shred of evidence that the policy convergence…is the result of a diffusion process. [Rather]…the rise of indirect affirmative action is linked to the widespread endorsement of the quintessentially political metagoal…“to integrate the national community by rubbing out in the [public’s] consciousness (…) a perception of racial difference”…that is, to reduce the salience of racial boundaries and eventually “eliminate race” as a principle of social organization. Because policies unavoidably have an expressive as well as an instrumental dimension, the very existence of an allocative scheme taking account of race in a transparent way is likely to jeopardize the “deracialization” that one is trying to bring about in the long run. So long as the criterion of race is seen to operate at the preliminary stage of identifying the participants in the interaction process, it remains unlikely that racial decategorization will occur.
From Daniel Sabbagh’s paper in the current issue of World Politics (gated link). For France, his primary evidence comes from recent experimentation with diversity-based admissions at Sciences Po. For the US, his evidence comes from a variety of examples where explicit race-based provisions, despite their constitutional admissability, have been eschewed in favor of measures that seem intentionally to obfuscate de facto race-based preferential treatment.
Affirmative action policies are a research interest of mine, and Sabbagh has done interesting work, though his focus is mostly on wealthy countries whereas mine is more on lower income and primarily post-conflict countries. Worth a look as well is his syllabus on comparing affirmative action policies (link).