Fri, Jan 11, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Macron’s affirmative action push tests pillar of French identity

By William Horobin  /  Bloomberg

Said Argoug struggled for years to get a stable job, but doors kept closing. Not because he lacked skills, he said, but because he lived in a gritty urban area in northern France and had an Arab-sounding name.

“I remember when I first tried to get jobs with temping agencies,” Argoug, 26, said in the offices of his new employer, La Mobilery, a small Web and app developer near Roubaix. “When they knew I came from Roubaix, I got no work.”

The work contract is part of a subsidized program French President Emmanuel Macron’s government is testing to combat job discrimination.

People from suburbs such as Argoug’s are one-third as likely to get work as those from wealthier neighborhoods, the French Ministry of Labor said.

It is France’s boldest attempt yet at affirmative action in a country that has struggled to integrate waves of immigration.

Millions of people of North African background, many of them citizens, live in suburbs of hastily constructed tower blocks around cities across the country. Known as banlieues, they are often isolated from transport connections. Their residents suffer from factory closures, poor educational achievement and decrepit public services.

While affirmative action is commonplace in the US, in France it is known as “positive discrimination” and viewed with suspicion.

Critics, especially from the far right, say perceived special treatment poses a threat to the central values of the country: liberty, equality and fraternity.

During his 2017 election campaign, Macron sparked an angry reaction when he espoused it as a solution for the high unemployment in the banlieues.

Marine le Pen, his rival in the runoff vote, said at the time that it was “contrary to the French Republic.”

Yet it is hard to climb the ladder in France.

It would take six generations for those born in low-income families to approach the mean income, compared with an average of 4.5 years across the 34 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations, and unemployment, especially among immigrants, is higher in France’s suburbs than in surrounding urban areas, according to the French National Observatory of Urban Policy.

The program is part of Macron’s broader attempt to bring down unemployment by shaking up the labor market. The gap between the haves and have-nots, and the perception that the president does not care has cost him during the “yellow vest” protests roiling Paris and other cities.

Work contracts such as Argoug’s qualify for subsidies, based simply on his home address. La Mobilery is to receive 5,000 euros a year for the first three years he works there.

The government is testing the plan in the area around Lille, which encompasses Roubaix, and some suburbs of Marseille and Paris. If successful, it could be rolled out nationwide at the end of this year.

In Lille, past employment policies were ineffective in aiding the underprivileged, because they offered the same services and support irrespective of need, said Vincent Huet, director of home-help association AMFD, which is also hiring under the new program.

“Fair solutions are needed,” he said.

A 2016 study by labor statistics office Dares showed that employers are more likely to respond to job applications from candidates with French-sounding names, such as Aurelieor Julien, than those with a North African name, such as Djamila and Faycal.

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