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French Face Tough Diversity Challenges

When Yazid Sabeg, France’s newly appointed Commissioner for Diversity and Equality, stated that his country was heading toward an apartheid system and possible social warfare, diversity experts from around the globe applauded his candor. While many of these experts agree that France faces some serious diversity challenges, the extent and effect of these challenges are up for debate.

The election of Barack Obama as U.S. president appears to have reignited discussion about diversity in France. French President Nicolas Sarkozy responded to the renewed political pressure in December 2008 by appointing Sabeg, the son of Algerian immigrants, to head an initiative by the French government to increase the profile of minorities and promote diversity.

“We are creating a social civil war in this country,” said Sabeg during an interview in January 2009. “I believe that today we are digging a ditch that leads us straight into apartheid and toward a major social explosion unless changes are made rapidly.”

Although some diversity experts say Sabeg might have been exaggerating to get his point across, evidence does suggest that France lags behind other Western European nations in several diversity-related issues.

Data in a diversity readiness index commissioned by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and collected by The Economist Intelligence Unit found that France ranked 10th among 11 western European countries for being ready to deal with diversity issues.

Although France was ranked third among western European nations for having a diverse population, the country was ranked near the bottom in the region for diversity issues such as workplace and social inclusion.

Overall, France was ranked 21st among the 47 nations included in the study.

“Although the statistics do reflect global diversity issues, the research indicates that France is lagging behind neighboring countries,” said Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion initiatives for SHRM. “And that could put more pressure on France because the population will compare their situation to countries in Western Europe.”

The country’s diversity issues had already reached the boiling point when riots broke out in October 2005 in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. The civil unrest spread throughout a number of suburbs that ring Paris and tend to be home to low-wage and immigrant workers.

Greece was also rocked by a series of riots during the summer of 2008.

The 2005 riots in the Paris suburbs forced the French government to declare a state of emergency for three months. The riots broke out in neighborhoods where the population is mainly immigrants from former French colonies in Northern and Central Africa. Unemployment is high in these areas, where young people especially are hit hard with a jobless rate estimated to be above 50 percent.

When Sarkozy took office in May 2007, he promised to bring relief to the unemployed and disaffected youth. Sarkozy immediately shook up the French political elite by appointing Rachida Dati, of Moroccan descent, as justice minister; Rama Yade, of Senegalese origin, as secretary for human rights, and Fadela Amara of Algerian origin, as state secretary in charge of city politics.

Sarkozy continued to shake up the political scene when he created the new government post of diversity and equality commissioner in 2008 and appointed Sabeg, who was well known in the country for his efforts in promoting diversity and workplace rights.

Sabeg is now leading a government initiative to promote diversity by placing more ethnic minorities on television, in political parties and into elite French schools. Sabeg was set to present details of the new national diversity plan in March 2009.

Sarkozy outlined some of the goals of the diversity initiative when he announced Sabeg’s appointment. One of the objectives will affect up to 100 French employers that sign a “diversity charter.” These companies will be required to adapt their recruiting and internal promotion processes by using “anonymous resumes” for candidate selection. Resumes will feature the job candidates’ qualifications but won’t include their names or information to indicate their age, sex or race.

According to Simone-Eva Redrupp, practice group leader of global talent development for Aperian Global’s Paris office, some French multinational companies such as L’Oreal and AREVA have already been recognized for their proactive approach for seeking out diverse talent.

“This innovative mindset has led to dynamic corporate cultures,” said Redrupp. “And other companies such as Veolia Environment are in the initial reflection phase of making their senior management aware of gender issues.”

While Redrupp and others in France have praised Sarkozy’s action to raise the awareness of diversity issues, she believes that fears linger that France could erupt in a new round of violence and that more needs to be done.

“Despite this strong message, the change has not been fast and deep enough. Unless things change in France, Yazid Sabeg’s predictions may well come true,” Redrupp said. “Let’s hope that situations where young, ambitious business professionals are asked to ‘Frenchisize’ their names on their business cards ‘so as to not shock clients,’ no longer happen.”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM Online.


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