Equal Opportunities?
Note: This piece is a followup to My face is not anonymous.


Hello I'm Sarah Elzas, looking today at the ongoing issue of race discrimination in France.

De Chevigny: My name is Marie-noelle de Chevigny, and I'm looking for a job since 2003.

Remember this woman? You may have heard her here on RFI about a year ago. I interviewed her for a report on hiring discrimination. She's trilingual- with a masters' degree in international marketing. She's from Martinique, and she's black. She started out her job search optimistically.

De Chevigny: I was really motivated with a lot of hope. I started by sending a CV by emails and letters- as usual [laugh]

A typical French CV includes your name, address, age, and a photo

De Chevigny: First I sent my CVs without photo. I had two or three interviews per week. I put my photo on my CV and I received perhaps one interview in three months. I collect objections- like a cocktail of objections. I'm young, 28 years old, so people think that I will get pregnant later. I am from Martinique, I am a black people.

As a black woman, De Chevigny is not the only one in this situation. France has a recognized problem with hiring discrimination on racial grounds, but also based on gender and age. Over the past couple of years, the government has passed laws; institutions and commissions have been founded; there have been seminars and forums on hiring discrimination. Has any of this done any good?

A year after our first interview, I decided to give Marie-Noelle de Chevigny a call, to find out where her job search had lead her:

De Chevigny: After our last interview I found two jobs- for two and four months on the first one and two months on the second one. And I'm still looking for a job right now- but I take a decision: I decided to find a job overseas.

I spend two weeks in the Untied States- I was very impressed, because people don't care about the fact that I'm black- they just want to know what they can do for them. So, when you have to go to an interview - you are not afraid. You are not thinking that they will be surprised because I am black or whatever.

I think that I have to try something because if in France I did everything I could. I have to think about myself, because I am 29 and I have to work, you know.

Does she really have no other choice but to leave France? She could go to court, using the HALDE, the high authority to fight discrimination, to help prepare the case.

De Chevigny: If I had the proof I would do it, sure.

Yatropulous: It's very difficult because the burden of proof is difficult to achieve.

Nepheli Yatropulous is in charge of international operations at the HALDE.

Yatropulous: The objective of the HALDE is to identify discriminatory situations- practices, document them and try to find solutions. So, you can call- and we ask you to write a letter. And then we have a lawyer in the HALDE that takes the file in charge and tries to gather information to make the proof. We can for example- if it's an employer, we can call the employer- we have the right to ask for any documentation of make the proof-

The HALDE looks at all forms of discrimination in all areas- not just in employment, but in housing and access to services, too. The categories are defined by the European Union, and the list is long.

Yatropulous: The different grounds of discrimination are: age, handicap, gender, sexual orientation, religion and race--origin

The first article of the French constitution says that all citizens are equal before the law. But as the population of France has become more diverse, it became clear that the existing laws weren't enough to stop discrimination on a legal level.

The European Union passed the Race Directive in 2000 which influenced French law. The HALDE was created in 2004. Two years later, France passed the equal opportunities law that expanded the HALDE's reach, allowing it to impose administrative sanctions on companies and institutions that discriminate

Yatropulous: The first year, 2005, 1,400 complaints. The second year we had 4,000 complaints. This year we are going to go over 6,000. That's a huge number. We get to be better known- and I think this is an achievement that in 2 and a half years we really exist as an institution in France

But critics of the HALDE say the institution isn't really doing anything. Patrick Lozes, the president of the CRAN- an umbrella organization for black advocacy groups- says the numbers of complaints the HALDE receives are abysmally low.

Lozes: There's about 16 million people in this country- And we have about 20 percent of black and Arabs in this country; half of this country have women. We have gender discrimination; we have many kinds of discrimination. And it's only 5,000 cases! I think it's a joke.

Nepheli Yatropulous of the HALDE says to be patient. After all, the institution started from scratch, she says.

Yatropulous: We started from nothing, I can say. Discrimination law and issues are very recent in France.

Lozes: HALDE was created 2 years ago- and everybody had a real hope, and now people are disappointed. Unfortunately, HALDE is not doing what most discriminated people wanted HALDE to do- that is to be the body everybody will have confidence in that they will really fight discrimination.

Lozes and other critics say the HALDE can't do its job because it's illegal in France to gather statistics on the basis of race or ethnicity, which makes it impossible, according to him, to do change anything:

Lozes: When I ask the member of government if discrimination has decreased or increased for five last years, they can just not answer because we don't have any tool to measure discrimination.

Yatropulous: The HALDE cannot take a position other than the one of the law.

That's Nepheli Yatropulous of the HALDE again. The idea of keeping race statistics has long been a contentious issue. It's seen as the antithesis to the French identity to categorize people based on race. And people worry about quotas.

Yatropulous: At the moment we only have qualitative tools.

The HALDE can't label people by their race, but they can count names. They can do "testings", sending two identical CVs to a company, each with a different name on it-- one "French" and one more ethnic.

Jean-Francois Amadieu is a sociologist who has studied hiring discrimination. He says keeping statistics on names is one way to get around the law

Amadieu (translation): It's possible to count what is authorized- like national origins. A person with a name from North Africa, for example, is three times less likely to get called into a job interview than someone with the same CV but with a French name.

Lozes: My name is Patrick Lozes. How would you imagine that you are talking to a black man? There are many people from French West Indies--they're black! But their names that seems like they are French. I think it's really hypo- it's not fair.

It's true that people like Patrick Lozes or Marie-Noelle de Chevigny don't show up in the HALDE's testing this way. But Researcher Jean-Francois Amadieu says that's OK, because name-based statistics catch enough to show that discrimination still is a big problem in France.

Amadieu (translation): We end up not counting a certain number of people of color. But that number is small within the bigger problem. We are fighting against discrimination on a large scale.

Part of the new immigration law currently moving through parliament would have allowed for the ethnic counting. But that section was removed during the constitutional review process.

Lozes: I think it's that- the will is not there. I think they are afraid at what they will discover. I'm sure that it will be a shock for everybody discovering what is going on in this country because for a long time France has pretend that there is no discrimination, and especially no racial discrimination in France.

Lozes says the HALDE should be calling for statistics based on race. They are the advocates against discrimination and need the tool in order to do their jobs. But Lozes says they are actually working against changing the law.

Lozes: They have publicly fought against the law which has- could allow this country to measure discrimination.

In an interview published in May 2006 in the French daily newspaper Le Monde, the president of the HALDE, Louis Schweitzer said that ethnic counting is "risky"—it feeds into the idea of "separating people into communities". He said that keeping these statistics is "not necessary to fight against discrimination". Lozes finds the attitude defeating:

Lozes: We all know that there could be negative effects. But the positive effects will exceed largely the negative effects. Nnot doing anything fighting discrimination is more dangerous for this country than to have these tools.

Yatropulous: I don't know if France is ready at the moment to receive such a tool

Nepheli Yatropulous of the HALDE says keeping statistics based on race might work in other countries, but not necessarily in France

Yatropulous: We can't transpose a model like the one in the UK directly in France. But I think the problem in France- we really have to have a debate on this issue- a real one, with no taboo. At the moment it's a little bit blocked.

Patrick Lozes is pessimistic about France's ability to combat racial discrimination, at least in the short term. He says nothing has changed since 2005, when there were wide-spread riots throughout the country, fueled in part by anger and frustration of people of color living in segregated suburbs:

Lozes: Daily humiliation- discrimination- This social violence is still there. Of course there can not be any excuse for urban violence- I need to admit that social violence can lead to urban violence. When you see your family who, despite the fact that they have gone through the education system, they are jobless, you can understand things very, very quickly. I think you need to have those young people think they are part of this country so they don't destroy it.

De Chevigny: I am already a foreigner in France. Because the job market show me that I am not as French as I thought.

Marie Noelle de Chevigny is going to leave French discrimination behind to go to the US, which will pose its own challenges, as she'll be a foreigner there looking for work

De Chevigny: I know it will be hard job to find something in the United States, but I prefer doing hard for a couple of months- or years I don't know. I don't mind, but I need to go overseas, I need to see something else.

Not everybody can leave. As French lawmakers debate the merits of race-based statistics and how to fight hiring discrimination, advocacy organizations like the CRAN will continue to make sure that the issue stays on the public agenda, though Patrick Lozes says it will stay there on its own.

Lozes: I'm not that confident that we can continue this way. Unfortunately it can end in something violent. I really, really want to be wrong- because I love my country, but clearly it is a time bomb- it has explode 2 years ago, nothing has changed. It will explode again- and I am afraid that the explosion one could be very big- and I don't want this country to go to this, so if we can avoid, let's avoid it.

In Paris, this is Sarah Elzas.

This piece aired on December 27, 2007, and January 12, 2008, on Radio France International (English Service).

Producer: Sarah Elzas
Recorded in Paris, France.