But his record on the issue has been mixed, when he was interior minister in 2005 he called rioting youths from the immigrant-dominated suburbs “racaille”, or “scum”.
The violence exposed the deep anger among immigrants who say they are often treated as second-class citizens and face a difficult struggle to find employment.
The measures announced on Wednesday include requiring elite institutions to raise the number of students on scholarships, and creating special training programmes to help people from poorer neighbourhoods pass exams to get into the senior civil service.
“France must change so that no French person feels like a stranger in his own country”
“How can we talk about a republic when your success at school and in professional life depends not on … merit but largely on your social origin, the neighbourhood where you live, your name or the colour of your skin?” Sarkozy said.
“It’s impossible not to see the ever-widening gap between the diversity of French society and the social and cultural homogeneity of the elites produced by our education system.”
Sarkozy also tackled one of the most notorious bastions of elitism, the “preparatory classes” which train high-school graduates to take extremely competitive exams to get into elite institutions like Polytechnique.
He said that from the 2010 academic year, such classes would be required to reserve at least 30 per cent of places for students on scholarships.
In order to tackle discrimination against names revealing an immigrant origin, Sarkozy proposed requiring 100 large companies to experiment with recruitment based on anonymous CVs.
The project is to be overseen by a newly appointed commissioner for diversity and equality, Yazid Sabeg, a son of Algerian immigrants who is known for his efforts to bring equality to the workplace.
Sarkozy said he hoped to encourage television companies and political parties to recruit more ethnic minorities.
Politics in France is overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Only one of the 555 members of the national assembly from mainland France is from an ethnic minority.
In the senate, only three out of 312 are ethnic minorities, according to national anti-racist groups Cran and MRAP.