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Macron caught off guard as spokeswoman calls for lifting taboo on race

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PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to be caught off guard on Monday by a proposal by a government spokeswoman, one of the most prominent black people in French politics, to lift a decades-old taboo against collecting statistics by race.

France asks no questions about ethnicity, national origin or religion on its census, part of a national ideology dating back to the 18th century French Revolution that the state must avoid such distinctions to treat citizens equally.

But with French people taking to the streets in recent days in solidarity with anti-racism protests in the United States, spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye wrote in a newspaper that the policy made it more difficult to tackle racism in France.

“Because we can’t measure and look at the reality as it is, we’re letting speculation go wild,” she wrote in Le Monde. “Why not start the debate about ethnic statistics, in a peaceful and constructive way?”

Senegal-born Ndiaye is one of Macron’s most prominent political allies, having served as his spokeswoman for years before he became president. Nevertheless, an official in the president’s office swiftly shot down her remarks.

“This is not a debate that the president wishes to open at this stage,” the official said.

France has large populations with origins in northern and sub-Saharan Africa, and the biggest Muslim minority in Europe. Many Muslim and black French citizens live in poor suburbs of big cities and complain of discrimination.

Macron is keen to keep racial issues in check and to focus on plans to rebuild the French economy after the coronavirus crisis.

On Sunday, he promised to be unflinching against all discrimination, but expressed support for French police and said fighting racism should not lead to a “hateful” re-writing of the history of France.

Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Peter Graff