In 2010, a study by French statistics agency INSEE showed that the employment rate among children of immigrants from North Africa is 20 points lower than that of native French people. This information reveals significant racial inequality in the French labor market, and with the worsening economic situation in France, the trend shows no signs of improving.
The 2005 riots highlighted the serious problems of discrimination that exist in France,and seven years later, nothing has changed. The French government has abandoned the suburbs.
Today, French companies are at the center of the debate on racism. Eric Zemmour, a famous conservative columnist, has developed theories promoting discrimination on a TV show. According to him: “Employers have the right to refuse to hire Arabs or blacks.” Anti-racist associations filed a lawsuit against him and during his trial, he was supported by the major right-wing student union and by some members of the president’s party, a sign that racism is deeply rooted in French society.
Proving that there is discrimination within French companies is extremely difficult because no one really knows how HR departments work as they are plagued by a total lack of transparency. One thing is certain, the French labor market is deeply discriminatory: if you are young, old, disabled or have a Muslim name, you have less chance of being recruited. Following the 2005 riots, French companies became more aware of diversity issues. Some have even signed a charter for diversity in which they promise to promote diversity within their company.
Racism inside companies in France often originates with those in management positions. Karim’s testimony is interesting: “I worked in a bank in Paris. After a year, I was unceremoniously fired. Being fired because of a lack of performance I can accept, but being treated like a dog, this is unacceptable. The department head refused to shake my hand and when we crossed each other in the halls, there was hatred in his eyes. Intimidation, humiliation, psychological harassment, my manager has used every trick to make me leave. When an Arab joins a company in this country, there is always a negative assumption. I always felt it in my work. Today I struggle to find a job. Two men managed to wreck my career when I was just starting out.”
The example of Karim is just one case among many. Lots of young French people with North African backgrounds do not even have the chance to join a company. It is impossible to quantify the phenomenon because ethnic statistics do not exist in France. Karim’s experience shows that racism is not exclusive to HR departments. Men and women working in other departments, who often have the power to hire or fire, can also be racist. Monitoring the ethics of decision-makers and their sensitivity to the issue of diversity is extremely important.
For cost reasons, more and more companies are choosing to leave Paris for the suburbs. Many publicly traded French companies are located in Seine-Saint-Denis (a department north of Paris with a high immigrant population), yet Seine-Saint-Denis is the department with the highest unemployment rate in France. When these companies move to Seine-Saint-Denis, they transfer personnel from other locations, rather than recruiting local talent.
A few months ago, the French Parliament enacted a law imposing strict male-female parity within boards of directors. The French government must also legislate to impose ethnic diversity within companies. It is urgent that we implement an active affirmative action policy. The government must impose diversity in key positions, from supervisors to top management and boards of directors. On this theme, there is clearly a lack of political will. Unlike Americans, the French do not like to speak directly about racial issues, even if the French media had no qualms about mentioning the Algerian origins of terrorist Mohamed Merah.
No presidential candidate is talking about these issues and companies refuse to consider quotas. French employers also fail to address this matter. Resistance against such ideas is strong. In France, the economic power—like the political power—is white. In a country with nearly 10 million foreigners, there is an urgent need for new legislation. If the country does nothing, France risks a new social explosion.