Discrimination Still Shadows France

The Associated Press
Tuesday, October 24, 2006; 5:39 PM

PARIS -- Any jobseeker in France's down-and-out housing projects knows that if you want work, it's better to be named Alain than Mohamed.

Unemployment is still a major obstacle for French minorities a year after riots ravaged poor districts and exposed deep-rooted anger over racism and alienation.

Labor Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said in a recent interview that discrimination is "considerable," especially against those of North African and African origin. He conceded that it will take years before government efforts to redress a failure to integrate its immigrants produce results.

"There are 40 years of failure to make up for," he told Associated Press Television News. In rough neighborhoods, he said, "We distribute rage instead of diplomas."

Joblessness in those areas is often more than double the nationwide level of 9 percent. Among men of Algerian origin, for example, unemployment is 23 percent, according to the Inequality Observatory, an independent research group. Among disadvantaged youth, the figure soars to nearly 50 percent.

Frustration over unemployment was cited as a cause of last year's unrest in suburbs home mainly to immigrants and French citizens of immigrant origin, many of them Muslim.

The unrest started a year ago Friday, and an intelligence report quoted in Le Figaro newspaper this week warned that the conditions that led to the unrest have not changed and any spark could fuel anger at police.

Officials have been asked to clear abandoned cars from streets and arrange pickups so trash containers are empty by nightfall, the newspaper reported. Images of flames _ primarily burning cars _ became the hallmark of last year's riots.

In the wake of the violence, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has made reducing joblessness a top priority of his government.

An equal opportunities law passed in April in response to the riots allows students as young as 14 to leave school to learn a trade, offers tax breaks to companies that settle in troubled areas, and permits undercover checks of nightclubs, employment agencies and other establishments to root out discrimination.

But one measure, a plan to force companies to accept job resumes, was recently jettisoned.

While overall unemployment has been slowly sinking since Villepin entered office in May 2005, the applicants at an employment office in La Courneuve, northeast of Paris, have yet to notice a difference.

"They only take whites," said Awa Traore, a French citizen of Malian origin looking for house-cleaning work.

Mazrui, a 25-year-old with a basic accounting degree, is working unofficially as a delivery man. He does not attach photos to his resume _ counter to French practice _ and sometimes uses a Paris address.

"It's very difficult especially to find office work" when you're young and non-white, said Mazrui, who would not give his last name because of his unreported job.

A government agency set up last year to counter discrimination, known by its French acronym HALDE, put it bluntly in a draft report released in September: In looking for a job, "It's better to be named Alain than Mohamed."

The agency has received 1,600 complaints since its creation, 650 of which were related to job discrimination, according to figures released last week.

"We have created a particular culture in the housing projects. Access to jobs is difficult, even when you have a diploma," said Borloo, the labor minister.

Many of the unemployed youth are children of immigrants from France's former colonies in Africa who crossed the Mediterranean in the 1950s to provide manual labor the French refused to do. The immigrants' shantytowns were later upgraded to the housing projects that now ring major cities and are often infested with gangs and crime.

"The tension is such that it will take two or three years ... before we arrive at a psychological transformation," Borloo said. "It's really ingrained."

He placed much of his hope on a 2003 urban renewal measure that includes special advisers in some 500 at-risk neighborhoods nationwide who work individually with youth to help them find work.

Discrimination is particularly acute against young women, who are even less likely to move up the economic ladder than their male counterparts, according to sociologist Jean-Francois Amadieu.

One sector seeking more diversity in its ranks is the police. A fast-track law enforcement training course introduced just before the riots focuses on poor, largely immigrant neighborhoods.

Such recruitment efforts "can facilitate a connection between police officers and the population," said Emile Perez, director of training for the national police.

© 2006 The Associated Press