Changing faces in French workplace
The street market in Saint-Denis is only a few minutes from the Champs Elysees by metro, but it feels more like north Africa than a northern suburb of Paris.
Amid a crowd of shoppers, almost all of Arab or African origin, a man in a white robe collects money for a mosque in the nearby suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois – one of the immigrant areas where youths burned cars and battled police during unrest in 2005.
Arab music blares from a music stall. Next to it, brightly patterned African fabrics hang from an awning.
Many of the people here are French citizens but they feel shut out of the mainstream of French society.
A major grievance during the riots three years ago was the discrimination young people of Arab and African origin said they faced in getting jobs. (???)
But now the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy says things have improved – and French companies are hiring more people from deprived neighbourhoods like Saint-Denis, especially young graduates.
“There’s a real dynamic which has begun on the issue of hiring young people from poor areas or from ethnic minorities,” says the Minister for Urban Affairs, Fadela Amara, who herself grew up in a mainly immigrant suburb.
“There’s a real campaign to promote diversity,” she told me.
“Large companies have discovered that young people from these areas offer genuine potential. And this isn’t philanthropy, it’s just good business.
“They know that those who have degrees have had to work very hard to get them, twice as hard as those who don’t live in neighbourhoods where there are problems, so they’re extremely competitive on the job market.”
But when I put this to people in Saint-Denis market, they say little has changed as far as they can see.
A young woman wearing a purple headscarf and carrying a university textbook said France does not tolerate religious diversity.
“Muslims, especially women like me who wear headscarves, are less likely to get jobs even if they’ve got a good degree,” she said.
And activists campaigning for equal opportunities say there has not been a breakthrough.
“You can’t really measure any progress yet because we’re still at the very beginning,” said Carole da Silva, head of an organisation which helps minority graduates find jobs.
“This issue generates a lot of debate, a lot of passion, but the public are only concerned with this problem from time to time – and you can’t talk about a phenomenal success or say the situation has been turned around.”
In Evry, south of Paris, I met Fatou Fall, a management assistant in a communications company.
She manages the company’s budget and considers herself fortunate to have a good job which she enjoys doing.
But she says getting it was not easy – and when she was looking for a job, she says she sometimes faced blatant discrimination.
“Once I applied for a job in a travel agency and the manager was very pleased with me,” she said.
“He wanted to hire me, but when the owner – his father – learned that I was Senegalese, he decided that he didn’t want me – and the manager told me that it was because his father was older and he didn’t get on well with foreigners.”
‘Racist and hypocritical’
But Ms Fall agrees that there has been progress under the Sarkozy government and she praises the work of the Urban Affairs Minister, Ms Amara.
Ms Fall found her current job with the help of Karim Zeribi, who advises the chairman of French railway network SNCF on equal opportunities.
France has the largest Muslim community in Europe and substantial numbers of French people have African and Caribbean roots.
Mr Zeribi says companies have woken up to the need to “build the France of tomorrow” with the ethnic minorities whose talents and potential, he says, have been underestimated in the past.
But he says France does not need ethnic job quotas or affirmative action programmes.
“All we need to do is recognise competence,” he said. “That means ignoring skin colour or religion and simply focussing on what’s important – who can do the job.”
But if that is happening, it is not obvious to the people in Saint-Denis.
“France is racist and hypocritical,” one young black man told me. “Perhaps things are getting better in the UK, but not here.”