Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 October 2020

France takes a small step to defeat discrimination

Muslim residents in France walk past racial slurs painted on the walls of a mosque in the town of Saint-Etienne. Laurent Cipriani / AP
Muslim residents in France walk past racial slurs painted on the walls of a mosque in the town of Saint-Etienne. Laurent Cipriani / AP

Europe has tried for decades, and with scant success, to eradicate the scourge of discrimination in jobs and education against people from ethnic minorities and its serious social consequences.

So it comes as little surprise that an initiative launched in France to test whether equal opportunities really are equal when it comes to applying for work has been welcomed not by three cheers, but barely two. It scratches at the problem, but offers no cure for the sore responsible for the itch.

Coincidental this may be, but it is a source of sorrow that even this severely limited experiment is being introduced against the backdrop of vile terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris. In any society that wishes to be respected by all its members, such measures – and much more besides – would be adopted in any case.

The idea is that for three months starting this week, false CVs will be sent to between 20 and 50 larger companies, each employing more than 1,000 people. Two resumes containing similar standards of qualification and suitability for employment will be submitted; one will bear an Arab name, the other a classically French one.

Only the broad results will be published, not the names of individual companies and how well or poorly they respond to the test.

The left-wing newspaper Liberation damns the initiative with faint praise, calling it “meagre consolation”.

A sociologist, Jean-Francois Amadieu, says the exercise may encourage dialogue but has limited value especially since there will be no naming and shaming. “The only thing this will do is confirm what we already know.”

There is a good reason why the findings may not even reinforce our knowledge that people of immigrant origins, which in France tends to mean Muslims with roots in the Maghreb or sub-Saharan Africa, suffer acute, indefensible discrimination. Forewarned by the publicity, the human resources departments of larger companies expecting to be chosen as guinea pigs will be on their best behaviour – whether or not they were in the past or will be once “le testing” has run its course.

That is not to say the initiative is not a step, albeit a faltering one, in the right direction. It is not necessary to be as far left of Francois Hollande’s unpopular, theoretically socialist government as Liberation often finds itself to see that much stronger remedies are needed.

France is not alone in seeming impotent in the face of ingrained and often institutionalised prejudice. We saw only last year how the UK was struggling to achieve true equality. A cross-party think tank report called for anonymous CVs to become compulsory and the prime minister, David Cameron, made an important speech deploring evidence that “even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get callbacks for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names”. The same is undeniably true elsewhere in Europe.

Perhaps another way of chipping away at discriminatory attitudes is to encourage promising signs that le vivre ensemble (living together) can mean not only getting along with those of other races or religions, but doing so within the same family.

Statistics are hard to come by because of France’s attachment to secular principles but research suggests increasing numbers of indigenous young French people are choosing Arabs or Africans as their partners. A nephew on the French side of my family is married to a woman of Moroccan origin and they have a child.

In Molenbeek, the Brussels district that has produced so many angry young men bent on terror, there is much distrust and even hatred of “white Belgians”. All those floral tributes, bearing messages of love, that appear after terrorist outrages may seem shallow and fanciful.

But given the impotence of government in tackling the problem at its root, more barrier-breaking rapprochement of the sort my nephew embraces might be no bad thing. It is harder to hate when your partner is from “the other side”.

And governments must begin to see that while all the justice and equality in the world will not stop fanatics intent on mass murder, a belief that education is not a waste of time but may well lead to decent employment would certainly stop some young people becoming those fanatics.

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National

Updated: April 4, 2016 04:00 AM

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