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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 May, 2005, 22:51 GMT 23:51 UK
French firms aim for racial integration
By Catherine Guilyardi
In Paris

In a room in the townhall of Dreux, an hour's drive from Paris, a dozen local employers have gathered to hear the mayor tell them why it is crucial to open their recruitment to diversity.

French Premier Jean-Pierre Raffarin holding up the European Charter
Premier Raffarin wants bosses and unions to discuss diversity
On the wall, a poster depicting a well groomed, white, blond manager reads: "If you prefer to avoid working with people in their 50s, women, disabled people, North Africans, etcetera, you'll end up feeling all alone".

The poster is part of a campaign, led by employers' pressure groups, which aims to encourage ethnic diversity in the workplace by raising awareness among local businesses.

Nobody expects instant results.

Race remains a strong source for discrimination in multicultural France.

Multicultural France
Population 60 million
One in five people has at least one foreign parent or grandparent
One in ten people living in France is a non-French national
Eight in 10 people oppose quotas based on race or religion

Black, Arab and Asian youth are much more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts with the same level of education and social background, according to L'Observatoire des Inegalites, an independent body set up by researchers to monitor discrimination in France.

"The higher their level of education, the more difficult it is for black French people to find a job," says sociologist Philippe Bataille.

"France is ten years behind Great Britain," says Frederic Girard, director of development at temporary employment agency Adia.

"Such discrimination is a total waste of competence," says Mr Girard, whose agency backed the study.

"It is possible to improve the situation of employment by recruiting in a different way."

Diversity equals performance

Since 2002, companies in France that discriminate have run the risk of ending up in court, though in reality legal action is rarely taken.

Renault chairman Louis Schweitzer, head of Halde
Renault chairman Louis Schweitzer warns against discrimination

Yet there is no doubt that the government believes there is a problem, so in recent months it has been urging French companies to push for changes in attitudes in order to become "the main vehicle for integration" of people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

"Our first objective is that social partners, employers and unions, open a dialogue on this question," said Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin during a recent equal opportunity conference.

Early this year, a government body was set up to fight discrimination and promote equality. Halde is headed by Renault chairman Louis Schweitzer, an appointment that sends a clear signal that business is onboard.

Indeed, the response from business has been favourable in several areas. "Our motto is 'diversity equals performance'," says Samuel Douette in charge of experimentation and training at CJD, an leading union for small and medium firms.

"Opening your recruitment policy to ethnic minorities reinforces your company's creativity and competitiveness."

Lofty targets

Last October, the CJD union signed a "charter for diversity", a voluntary agreement drawn up by the employers' think tank, the Montaigne institute, headed by Axa chairman Claude Bebear, the author of a government-backed report titled "Business reflecting the colours of France".

Youth study the French charter for diversity
Many young people in France hope the charter for diversity will help

French railways SNCF, PSA - which make Peugeot and Citroen cars, TV channel Canal + are among the 60 leading French companies that have signed the charter.

The companies have pledged to make a significant culture shift by implementing "non-discrimination and diversity policies" to fight the persistent discrimination seen at all stages of the employment process, from recruitment and interviews to job offers and promotions.

The companies have made commitments to interview more applicants from "visible minorities" and to make it easier for them to advance their careers in their companies.

Progress towards improving ethnic diversity should be monitored and "reported in the firms' annual reports", according to the charter.

Tools and skills

The CJD union is taking a lead to build further support for the campaign, starting later this year with a series of awareness meetings in 300 companies.

Montaigne institute's Laurence Mehaignerie
Ms Mehaignerie fights 'cloning', employing those who look the same

But with about half the French people rejecting the idea of positive discrimination, and eight in 10 opposing quotas based on ethnicity and religion, the task facing French business is a tricky one.

Hence, seven months after the charter was first announced, most companies admit that not much has been done.

Many of them say they lack both the tools and the skills required to tackle the issue.

I don't think my colleagues are racists, I just think they have never really thought about the question of racial discrimination
Pascal Bernard
Head of human resources at Eau de Paris

"Small and medium enterprises seldom have a human resources department and bigger companies don't know how to implement their good intentions," says the Montaigne institute's Laurence Mehaignerie.

In order to support companies that have signed up to the charter, Mrs Mehaignerie is setting up an association that should be funded by the businesses.

"We will propose training to fight 'cloning' - employing people who look like one another - by convincing recruitment staff that they lose talent and creativity if they do so," Mrs Mehaignerie says.

Initial efforts

Some companies have started making changes.

Take the Insurance group Axa, which has introduced anonymous job application forms where candidates don't have to give their names.

"They only have to write about their studies and work experience," says Antoinette Prost, director of studies in human resources.

"It is a way for us to promote and defend values we believe in."

But Axa's management acknowledges that it has yet to launch training programmes to challenge damaging prejudices.

Such programmes are crucial to ensure that discriminatory attitudes don't appear during the second phase of a job application, namely the job interview, insists Pascal Bernard, head of human resources at Eau de Paris, one of the charter's signaturees.

"Middle management has to be properly trained to understand the advantages of ethnic diversity at work," he says.

Social time bomb

Mr Bernard has set up a scheme to check its management's "level of tolerance".

"We send our staff to assessment centres where they have to solve case studies with racial issues.

"I don't think my colleagues are racists, I just think they have never really thought about the question of racial discrimination."

The issue can no longer be ignored, insists Mr Bernard, pointing out that one in five French people have a foreign ancestor.

"If we don't want a social bomb to go off in our face, we have to open our doors now to all differences!"


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