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French Discrimination Suit Calls Égalité Into Question

Dimanche, 15 Janvier, 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.

French Discrimination Suit Calls Égalité Into Question
Temp Agency Accused of Rating Workers by Race for Clients

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 15, 2006; A20

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."

In the lawsuit, Roffat and other former employees at the company's Montparnasse office have testified that in 2000 they were using race-based classification systems for applicants. After candidates completed applications, the forms were marked with the notation "BBR" or "NBBR," according to Roffat, SOS Racism, documents and witnesses interviewed by police and labor investigators during the five-year probe.

BBR, shorthand for " bleu , blanc , rou ge ," or "blue, white, red" -- the colors of the French flag -- identified white candidates, said Samuel Thomas, vice president of SOS Racism. NBBR meant "no blue, white, red," and denoted black and other nonwhite candidates, Thomas said.

When the candidates' names were entered into computer databases, the BBR and NBBR were replaced with the categories PR1 for the best candidates (most candidates in this category were white), PR2 for average applicants or PR4, primarily for black candidates, though a few union activists and other people deemed potentially undesirable were included, according to documents and witnesses. Thomas said about 95 percent of those assigned to the PR4 category were black. No PR3 category existed.

"We identified 50 big companies that gave orders to discriminate," Thomas said.

"Sometimes we had clients with restaurants who asked for waiters -- only white, no blacks," said Roffat. "Cafeterias in schools or workplaces didn't want blacks as well. It was very frustrating. Most of our applicants were people of color, and we had to refuse them. We couldn't place them."

Thomas said that in 2000 as many as 70 percent of all job candidates in the Montparnasse office were black. Adecco spokesman d'Avezac said he could not provide figures on the racial composition of the workforce: "No one is allowed to have any statistics, based on the fact that everybody is equal."

D'Avezac said Adecco launched its anti-discrimination program after an internal investigation discovered that "we were having problems in the context of questions with clients." D'Avezac said some clients used coded phrases to describe the kinds of temporary hires they desired.

"A client doesn't say, 'I don't want blacks,' " d'Avezac said. "He says, 'I want people who are not from the suburbs. You know what I mean?' " Most of Paris's subsidized housing, where many low-income immigrants and their French-born children reside, is located in suburbs surrounding the city.

According to d'Avezac, the company's current policy requires Adecco employees to avoid complicity or compliance with such discriminatory demands. He said they are now trained to respond, "No, I don't know what you mean."

Documents and testimony collected by government investigators and SOS Racism, and testimony from Roffat and other former employees, show that in 2000 some Adecco employees initiated offers to segregate applicants for clients.

Roffat said he once overheard an Adecco officer speaking on the telephone with a new client. "I heard him say, 'Okay, you want people to work in the restaurant?' " Roffat recalled. " 'Would it bother you if it was a person of color? I'm asking you this because I know some clients don't want them.' "

At this point, it's not the client saying don't send people of color, said Roffat, but "the people who worked in this company asking the client to make the distinction."

Case records show that Adecco employees have said they were told by Disney employees that minority referrals to Disney could not exceed about 20 percent. "We can't accept that mentality," SOS Racism's Thomas said. "You should never choose anyone because of color."

Pieter Boterman, a spokesman for Disneyland Resort Paris, declined to comment, citing the continuing investigation. He added, "Racism is absolutely not tolerated at Disney Resort Paris, as well as any other form of discrimination."

Roffat said the Foreign Ministry was one of the government agencies that refused to accept black workers at some of its diplomatic events. Roffat said an Adecco colleague told him that ministry officials didn't want to offend visiting African diplomats by having black Africans serving as waiters.

"I don't know why they're making these allegations," said a ministry spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, following ministry policy. He said the people hired as temporary workers for diplomatic functions "are diverse -- they're from Tunisia, Asia, Africa."

Makela, the former temporary worker now involved in the lawsuit, is a soft-spoken man with ebony skin. He said he knew nothing about the systemic discrimination while he was being assigned jobs through Adecco. He realized, however, that he was given many jobs beneath his training.

Like other temporary workers at Adecco, Makela said he learned about the labeling system when he was approached by SOS Racism after his name turned up on the list of at least 1,500 workers categorized as PR4. He broke off with Adecco and applied to a competing employment agency. "The first job I had I saw the difference," Makela said. "Instead of police station cafeterias, I was sent to hotels and good restaurants."

Nearly five years have passed since SOS Racism filed its complaint against Adecco and authorities seized company records and computer data. Thomas said the case's slow crawl through the French judicial system is symptomatic of the government's failure to confront one of the country's worst social problems.

Thomas had his first meeting with a judge on Sept. 12. The judge will determine whether SOS Racism and police and labor investigators have assembled enough evidence to take the case to court.

Judge Jean-Louis Peries, who is now responsible for the case, said in an interview that he was not allowed to discuss details of an ongoing case. Peries, who said he currently oversees at least 60 different cases, ranging from street crimes to war crimes, sat behind a desk stacked with files in Paris's ornate Palais de Justice.

Asked to rank the importance of discrimination cases on his large docket, Peries said, "Every case is important for a victim. But I think murder may be more important. There's more urgency in a murder, so this kind of case comes after."

Xavier Espinasse, chief of the Paris police unit responsible for investigating crimes of repression, echoed many of the judge's concerns. The unit's 60 investigators and officers are responsible for 140 categories of offenses including health hazards, art forgeries, hate crimes and racial, sexual, age and ethnic discrimination.

"Racial discrimination is very difficult to prove," Espinasse said. "They always find an excuse: 'It's not my fault, it's the boss, I was following orders -- like war crimes.' "

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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