Patrick Lozès wants France to see him for what he is: a citizen who is black.
"To be counted," he says, "in order to count."
As the president of France's only national black lobbying organization, Mr. Lozès made waves in recent days by releasing the first survey to try to calculate the number of blacks in the country.
The results were not especially startling: Slightly under 4 per cent of the adult population -- about 1.9 million people -- are black. But the study broke a French taboo by taking the measure of a minority group and giving it a snapshot of itself.
With the French presidential election just three months away, that picture can help blacks in their bid for more political and economic power, said Mr. Lozès, a Paris pharmacist who was born in the West African country of Benin. The goal, he added, is to be "black and proud."
If his words sound like echoes of the U.S. civil-rights movement of the 1960s, it's no accident.
His group, the Representative Council of Black Organizations, known in French by the initials CRAN, was founded in late 2005, just after rioting in suburban ghettos populated largely by the families of African and Arab immigrants.
It was the riots that helped spawn CRAN, but the group takes its inspiration from the American struggle for racial equality. In strategy sessions, members of all ages talk eagerly of organizing boycotts, establishing quotas to ensure black representation and pushing the state to create minority business loans, black scholarships and affirmative-action programs.
"Blacks are not represented because right from the starting line there's discrimination," he said. "We need the kind of programs to help us catch up that America got in the time of Lyndon Johnson," the president who outlawed most racial segregation in the United States.
CRAN's premise -- that black citizens have shared aims and problems by virtue of the colour of their skin -- may seem obvious to outsiders, but it flies in the face of the conventional French view that equality is best achieved when the state is blind to race.
"It's dangerous to systematize division," François Héran, head of the national demographics institute, told French radio after Mr. Lozès's survey was released.
The French census asks for parents' country of birth, allowing some rough estimate of the black population based on immigration data. But Mr. Lozès and his group have argued that without polling French minority groups about their situation, the government can never know whether its anti-discrimination policies are working.
Last week, his group took a more direct approach, releasing the results of a private survey of 13,000 French adults that was conducted by the TNS-Sofres polling company.
Of the total, 3.8 per cent of those surveyed said they were black. Extrapolating from that figure, and a finding that four out of five black respondents were citizens, the poll concluded that France has nearly 1.9 million potential black voters out of an electorate of 42 million.
The uneasiness generated by the results reflects a "resistance to confronting the question of race," says Françoise Vergès, a specialist in postcolonial politics who teaches at the University of London.
In the 1950s and 1960s, racism was much discussed in France, but mainly in the context of the country's treatment of its Arab and African colonies and Pacific Ocean territories. It receded from public debate after the colonies became independent. CRAN has tried to reinsert it, but as a homegrown issue.
"Now we are talking about black citizens, citizens who carry another history that is at the same time the history of France," Prof. Verges said. "In that, it's similar to the American civil-rights movement, in that it asks what it means to be a citizen."
Since its creation, CRAN has busied itself building a grassroots network across the country through the more than 130 local black civic associations that make up its membership. The group has also issued regular calls for protests -- against a television host who insulted Africans, against the way one French dictionary defines colonialism and against laws prohibiting the collection of racial and ethnic statistics.
It will face a big test this spring, with the presidential vote on April 22 and parliamentary elections in June, but Mr. Lozès says he takes a long view, aiming to model CRAN after the social activism and voter awareness programs of the 98-year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the United States.
Some of his group's members are more impatient for change.
A few months ago, they invited Edgar Chase, a black business professor at Dillard University in New Orleans, to speak about the role of education in achieving racial equality. It wasn't long before the discussion turned to a strategy session.
"We should be boycotting companies that don't hire enough blacks," one young woman said. "In the U.S., big companies felt it was in their interest commercially to not be racist."
There were murmurs of approval from others in the room -- all of them French, most of them blacks whose parents or grandparents came from former French colonies in Africa. Mr. Lozès asked for a primer on U.S. affirmative-action laws. Others chimed in with questions about how to get positive publicity.
"You need to have a positive mindset," Prof. Mr. Chase told them. ". . . Maybe you do a protest march. But you send a positive message: 'We're doing this because we love France and want it to be able to compete in the global economy.' "
Égalité, fraternité, minorité
An advocacy group has made waves in France with a poll that bluntly confronts racial issues. The poll puts the country's black voting population at about 1.9 million and asks repondents about experiences with discrimination.
Are you part of a visible minority and, if so, which one?
Arab /Berber; 3.2%
Mixed race; 1.4%
I don't belong to any of these visible minorities; 90.2%
What is your nationality?
Dual nationality; 6%
Have you ever personally been the victim of racial discrimination?
Don't know; 1%
SOURCE: TNS-SOFRES, REPRESENTATIVE COUNCIL OF BLACK ORGANIZATIONS (CRAN)