French Discrimination Suit Calls Égalité Into Question

Gerald Roffat, an intern at one of the world's largest temporary agencies, helped launch a lawsuit alleging the firm used code to identify blacks and prevent them from being hired at some of Paris's best-known companies.
Gerald Roffat, an intern at one of the world's largest temporary agencies, helped launch a lawsuit alleging the firm used code to identify blacks and prevent them from being hired at some of Paris's best-known companies. (By Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 15, 2006

PARIS -- As a 24-year-old intern in a Paris office of Adecco, one of the world's largest hiring agencies for temporaries, Gerald Roffat interviewed dozens of job applicants in 2000. He rated them according to skills -- PR1 for the best candidates -- and by skin color. PR4 was primarily for black job seekers.

When Roffat questioned this system of segregating applicants, he recalled in an interview, a colleague told him: "It's better to respect the choices of the client. If they don't want a black guy, you have to send what the client wants. It's business."

The clients that refused to accept black employees for their most visible service jobs included some of the city's best-known hotels, restaurants and department stores, as well as local government agencies and the Foreign Ministry, according to Roffat, whose parents immigrated to France from the West Indies. Other clients, among them the Disneyland Resort Paris theme park, imposed limits on the number of black workers they accepted, he said.

Adecco, which is based in Zurich, with 1,100 offices in France and more than 5,000 in the United States and other countries, is now the target of a French discrimination complaint alleging that it violated the rights of at least 1,500 applicants by denying them jobs based on the color of their skin.

Tristan d'Avezac, a spokesman for Adecco, declined to comment on specifics of the complaint, citing a continuing investigation. But he said that in 2000 the company imposed a policy aimed at ending racial discrimination in its operations. "Discrimination is a reality in the labor market in France," d'Avezac said. "It is clearly the reason why we have this action plan."

The French republic was founded on the ideal of equality of all citizens. But the allegations against Adecco suggest that discrimination is embedded and tolerated at the highest levels of business and government here.

"The official position of France is that we're all equal," said Jean-Pierre Dubois, president of the French Human Rights League. "The problem is that it's not true. French businesses and the French people are not yet used to diversity."

Human rights organizations allege that some laws -- intended to be so racially blind that private companies are prohibited from collecting statistics on numbers of minority employees -- are used routinely to conceal poor hiring records and protect companies that discriminate.

French leaders' refusal to acknowledge the extent of these practices in government, society and business contributed to the rage that exploded in 300 cities across France in October and November, many people here believe. Youths in poor immigrant communities set fire to more than 10,000 cars and scores of government buildings and private businesses in the country's worst civil unrest in nearly four decades.

France's leadership has since begun to publicly address issues of discrimination. But so far, minority populations have seen little sign of political will to address the situation long-term.

"What made me sick was the people at Adecco didn't think they were discriminating," said Roffat, who quit his job in December 2000 and wrote to SOS Racism, one of France's leading anti-discrimination organizations, describing the company's classification system. That two-page letter became the catalyst for the complaint against Adecco.

Christophe Makela, 44, a Congolese who was given temporary work through Adecco and has joined the lawsuit, said he was once assigned as a dishwasher by the company even though he had training as a cook. "They said I wasn't a strong enough candidate to be a cook," Makela said. "Now I realize it was a pretext."


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