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Riots Force France to Confront Failures on Race (Update1)

Mercredi, 16 Novembre, 2005

Nov. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Chima Kalai, a 26-year-old with a diploma in computer management, has looked for work in Paris for 18 months. After the 150 resumes she sent got her three interviews, Kalai, who is French of Tunisian descent, is bitter.

Riots Force France to Confront Failures on Race (Update1)

Nov. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Chima Kalai, a 26-year-old with a diploma in computer management, has looked for work in Paris for 18 months. After the 150 resumes she sent got her three interviews, Kalai, who is French of Tunisian descent, is bitter.

``Sometimes, when you call by phone, the moment you give your name, you hear the tone change,'' said Kalai, standing in line last week at an employment office in Evry, 30 kilometers southeast of Paris. ``They can always find a way to reject you.''

Experiences such as hers, and those of hundreds of thousands of others, created the climate fueling the riots that have shaken France for more than two weeks. While the immediate emphasis is on quelling the disturbances, French leaders from President Jacques Chirac down are beginning to acknowledge the issue behind the violence: the nation's own failure to combat discrimination against, and create economic opportunities for, its almost 6 million inhabitants of African or Arab origin.

``The riots show the limits of the French social model,'' Christophe Bertossi, research fellow at the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations, said in an interview. ``Solving these riots must go beyond just law and order. We have to update the concept of citizenship.''

In a televised address on Nov. 14, Chirac asked companies and political parties to mobilize on ``the essential question of diversity'' in order to ``better reflect'' French society.

Limited Participation

Immigrants and their French descendants make up about 10 percent of the country's population. Yet there are no African or Arab heads of companies on the benchmark CAC 40 stock index. No member of parliament from France, excluding non-European territories, is black or Arab. Towns largely populated by immigrants and their families have youth unemployment rates as high as 40 percent, more than four times the national average.

Only 0.6 percent of the 5.2 million people with government jobs in France are of North African background, although they represent 1.1 percent of the working-age population, according to a study by the Paris-based National Institute of Statistics and Studies.

``Discrimination against North Africans and blacks, to call them by their names, whether they are French or not, is widely practiced with impunity,'' Roger Fauroux, head of a commission on discrimination in the workplace, wrote in a Sept. 8 report handed to the labor and housing ministry.

Statistical Shortcomings

It's hard even to measure the magnitude of France's social problems. The country doesn't collect statistics by ethnic origin or religion, a practice long regarded as a bulwark of the republic's concept of ``equality'' among its citizens.

``In France it is unthinkable to ask people their religion or ethnic origin, so it is very difficult to measure the efficiency of any initiatives,'' Fauroux said.

Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, research director at the Center of International Studies and Research in Paris, calls this lack of statistical references a ``blindspot'' at the center of the national debate over integration.

Tests done last year by a team led by Jean-Francois Amadieu, a University of Paris professor, found that applicants with non- French names are five times less likely to be called in for job interviews than people with French names of comparable skills.

Louis and Mohamed

``All you have to do is send out 50 CVs signed Louis Dupont and 50 others signed Mohamed Boudiaff,'' Louis Schweitzer, head of France's High Commission for the Fight against Discrimination and Equality, said in a Nov. 10 interview with the French newspaper Les Echos. ``Overall, the results are startling.''

Schweitzer, 63, is the former chief executive officer of Paris-based Renault SA, France's No. 2 carmaker. His commission, which was created by Chirac in June, is modeled on the Commission on Racial Equality in the U.K., which was founded in 1976.

Schweitzer advocates the use of random testing, rather than anonymous resumes, as a way of weeding out discriminatory practices. Under a proposal made by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin this month, Schweitzer's commission would be given power to impose sanctions against employers found to have discriminated.

``That is very important as it would avoid recourse to the courts, which are very slow,'' said Fauroux in a Nov. 9 interview.

``The judges don't have the time, they don't have the competence and they don't have the experience,'' said Samuel Thomas, vice president of SOS Racisme, a 20-year-old organization with a 1 billion euro budget that has pursued cases through the courts.

Moulin Rouge

One involved Abdoulaye Marega, an immigrant from Senegal, who was refused a waiter's job in November 2000 at Moulin Rouge, one of Paris' most famous nightspots, with the comment that it hires blacks for the kitchen, not for the front room. SOS Racisme brought suit. In November 2002, Moulin Rouge was ordered to pay fines of about 20,000 euros ($17,056). Marega, 26, now works for a Paris restaurant. Moulin Rouge didn't respond to a request for comment.

SOS Racisme also brought suit against Glattbrugg, Switzerland-based Adecco SA, the world's largest temporary-job agency, after its Paris agency used code words in 2001 to set aside black and Arab applicants at the request of restaurants and caterers. The code for white applicants was the letters BBR, which stand for ``bleu, blanc, rouge,'' or blue, white and red, the colors of the French flag, Thomas said.

The case is under investigation. Tristan d'Avezac, director of external relations in Adecco's Paris office, declined to comment. ``We are intermediaries, which puts us sometimes in a difficult position,'' he said.

Languished for Decades

Fauroux, 79, a former president of French building materials company Saint-Gobain SA and a former industry minister, said the discrimination problem has languished for decades.

``The first generation of immigrants worked hard, and posed no problems,'' he said. ``The situation has changed with the last generation: fathers who are unemployed, who have no authority over the children, less opportunity to buy houses. It has definitely gotten worse in the last 10 years.''

That deterioration is cited by sociologists as one reason the riots lasted as long as they did. The violence that began in a Paris suburb on Oct. 27, after the accidental death by electrocution of two teenagers, spread to towns and cities across France in the country's worst public unrest since a student uprising in 1968.

Almost 9,000 cars were torched and France had to invoke a 50-year-old law of curfews and public gathering restrictions to restore calm.

An Election Issue

Once the riots cool, the question of how to respond to the underlying issues will emerge as a major issue in the 2007 presidential elections. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, a potential candidate of the Union for a Popular Movement, advocates affirmative action for ethnic minorities; de Villepin, another possible contender, and Chirac favor an ``equal opportunity'' approach.

``We keep repeating `republic, republic, equality, equality,''' Jack Lang, a former minister of culture and a possible Socialist Party candidate, said at a meeting with journalists on Nov. 9. ``We are trapped by this ideology,'' he said. ``These kids in the suburbs throw these words back at us now, and we are obliged to do something.''


To contact the reporter on this story:

Celestine Bohlen in Paris at

Last Updated: November 16, 2005 04:00 EST









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