More French firms diversify, leaving 'colorblind' behind

After 17 years of working for one of France's biggest trucking companies, Mohammed Amar Zedoud was fed up.

"Each time a post fell vacant somebody more junior and with less experience got it," he recalls with a shrug. "It was clear I wasn't going any further."

When he asked his bosses why he wasn't being promoted, he says "they had no reasons." But Mr. Zedoud suspected he knew the reasons: his Algerian name and looks. So he looked elsewhere.

And because France is changing, albeit slowly, he found the job he was looking for.

He found it at the Peugeot Citroën plant in this industrial town 30 miles west of Paris, and not by chance. The French automaker has pioneered a drive to diversify its workforce that other companies are beginning to emulate, even at the risk of violating French laws that prohibit classifying workers by race or ethnicity.

"Three years ago, it was complicated to get a personnel manager to see me," says Alexandra Palt, who works with IMS, a nonprofit group that helps French firms broaden their recruiting policies to hire more minorities. "Today it's the opposite. We are extremely in demand and everybody wants to get involved."

This month's violence in the heavily immigrant suburbs of France's cities, where youth unemployment can run to 40 percent, has sparked a lively debate here about the lack of opportunities that young people of immigrant origin face. It has also prompted admissions from President Jacques Chirac on down that the nation proclaiming "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" has betrayed that promise to its minorities.

Zedoud applied for a team leader's job on the production line here, in charge of about 40 operatives, because "Peugeot has a recognized reputation for integration," he says.

Jean-Luc Vergne, head of the company's personnel department and a member of Peugeot Citroën's board, insists that it is the skills of men and women like Zedoud, not their skin color or background, that gets them jobs at Peugeot.

Like most French, he is opposed to affirmative action, known here as "positive discrimination."

"It would be an economic mistake to hire according to skin color," he says, but then adds that there is no need to do so.

"It is simply a question of giving people a chance," he says. "There are talented people in the immigrant community and we just have to recognize their skills." That, he explains, is the approach behind the agreement on diversity in hiring that the company signed with its trade unions last year.

"We are not philanthropists," Mr. Vergne says. "It's a question of efficiency. We need a variety of profiles to reflect society and our clients, because that is the best way of understanding our customers and meeting their needs."

In his spartan glass-walled office on the factory floor, watching cars roll slowly along the production line, Zedoud has another good business reason for Peugeot to hire more team leaders like him.

"80 percent of my team is of immigrant background, and 80 percent of them live in the projects," he points out. "I'm like them, I know their environment, and that simplifies communications between us."

Since Peugeot Citroën signed its diversity deal, recruitment and promotion patterns have changed, say production line workers. Vergne has the figures he says prove that, presenting a reporter with a table showing that 12.4 percent of foremen hired so far this year, and 8.9 percent of engineers and managers, belong to "visible minorities."

That category is unusual in France, where employers here are prohibited by law from classifying their workers by their ethnic origins, or by any euphemistic allusion to their racial background.

Vergne brushes off the objection. "I am outside legality and I don't care," he says bluntly. "I need a follow-up tool to check on equal treatment."

This is a delicate matter in France, where the authorities remember how the Vichy government, under Nazi tutelage during World War II, kept racial records that facilitated the deportation of Jews.

Yet the need for some sort of measurement is apparent. Estimates of how many production line team leaders at the Poissy plant are of immigrant origin varied from 8 percent to 30 percent, depending on who was asked.

But not everybody wants to be identified by ethnicity. "I don't want to be seen here as the token Arab," says Abdel Akhrraz, who has been a team leader since 1997. "I got to where I am because of my merits, not because of any positive action. I made it because I worked hard."

Despite Vergne's distaste for affirmative action, the deal he signed with the unions does commit Peugeot Citroën to hiring 45 high school graduates a year from "Sensitive Urban Zones," official language for the heavily immigrant public housing projects.

"That is why we signed," says Lahbib Eddaouidi, a representative of the communist CGT union. "The agreement does have positive discrimination in it, even if normal French hypocrisy means we don't say so. And we will be demanding that the company goes much further than 45, and does more in training and to make sure that the foremen resemble the men they are managing."

Mr. Eddaouidi says he is frustrated by the slow pace of Peugeot Citroën's efforts to diversify, pointing out that most of those in authority are white French men.

Vergne admits this, but says that "you don't change habits and cultures overnight.

"The fact that we have managers and team leaders of immigrant background will change the vision of selection in the future," he predicts. "People replicate their own experience. But it will take several years."

Peugeot Citroën is still unusual in France, where "the social tissue of the country has not yet integrated the concept of diversity," says Ms. Palt. "But it is an irreversible movement, because it is so necessary for France and its future," she adds.

"We have wasted a lot of talent" acknowledges Vergne. "It may be late, but now we have recognized that we have to move fast."

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