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White Collars, Black Faces: corporate initiative and prospects for change in France


France is a country born of revolution. In just over two centuries it has completely reinvented itself five times. In roughly the same number of years it took for the United States to add 27 amendments to its constitution France has built five new and complete republics, and destroyed four of them. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, France finds itself at a point of crisis. The last fifty years of intense immigration from former colonies in Africa, Asia and elsewhere have expanded the definition of what it means to be French.  As the colours, names and cultures of “Frenchness” have evolved, France has maintained its ardent commitment to the value of equality of all citizens. The high unemployment and slow economic growth rates of more recent years have become entwined with issues of identity, access and social mobility, challenging the reality of theories of citizenship’s universal equality. The three weeks of upheaval which occurred in the Parisian suburbs in November, 2005, the nearly 9,000 burnt cars, the destroyed buildings, and the memory of the two youths whose deaths while fleeing the police provided the necessary spark, have been described by many in France as a wake-up call. The Republican ideals on which France has fashioned itself, equality, liberty, brotherhood, have not been extended to the outer ring of French society, those it has seen as its newcomers. 

Yet the casseurs demonstrating in the banlieues of France were not immigrants, nor newcomers. They were Frenchmen. Promises of a Republican state where all were French and all were equal had been made to the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of the marginalized suburban young people. For many of these youth these promises were now proving unfulfilled. As they raised their hands against the system which had failed them, their actions were seen by some as a sign of changing times, and confirmation that they must continue to change. 

One of the most pressing issues facing French youth of ethnic background is the difficulty they face in entering the job market. Since the recessions of the 1970’s France has managed its way through times of economic prosperity and challenge. Consistently high levels of productivity and a diversified and robust economy have been unable to stymie recent trends of slowing growth rates and rising unemployment. As the welfare state’s egalitarian mechanisms begin to show the strain of insufficient support, attacks are leveled from both ends of the political spectrum. The brunt of the economic hardship has found its home in the ethnic neighbourhoods of the banlieues where the disconnect between the French political elite and the polity it governs is most salient. Non-white French citizens have found themselves almost completely unrepresented in the political and economic spheres. The result has been the effective marginalization of members of the French section of society who carry foreign names and dark skin, and their nearly complete banishment to the lowest social strata.

France’s stated commitment to egalitarianism has created an unwillingness to categorize issues of unemployment and hampered social mobility along racial lines. Terms which place citizens into categories based on ethnic origin are not commonly used, even when applied in the broadest category of “minority”. There are no African-Frenchmen, no Arab-Frenchmen. They are all simply French. Categorizing along racial lines still carries with it the painful memories of a haunted past rooted in colonial grievance and, especially, the experience of France’s Vichy Regime. During the Second World War, the Vichy government used exactly this type of categorization with chilling effectiveness, to round up the Jews of France and deliver them into the merciless hands of the Nazis. 

As France struggles to create the space required for the inclusion of minorities in its corporate arena, it is faced with finding the balance between sets of often contrasting ideas. Separating issues of race and social status can be difficult, as minority groups in France typically find themselves the most common victims of joblessness and poverty. While support for the elimination of discrimination is virtually universal, the further goal of creating a diverse workforce suggests steps which may challenge traditional Republican ideals. However, the advantages of diversity have already been embraced by many of France’s businesses, especially those with international ties. These corporations have become the locus of support for changing attitudes and practices about how France can incorporate its minorities. 

While the idea that corporations, whose first responsibility is to make money, would voluntarily regulate diversity within their own (and each other’s) ranks may seem far fetched, there is growing belief that the diversity which will result is simply good business sense. Charles-Henri Philippi, CEO of the French division of mega-bank HSBC explains how the denial of differences and the assumed conformation to the republican ideal of a single French identity “is not the reality of the world. In my view,” he says, “I prefer by far the way we have it at HSBC where you say it’s the difference, and the addition of those differences, that creates something.” 

The philanthropic effect of providing social mobility to a marginalized group, in this case, is a natural and positive result. The primary motivation, however, is based on findings which suggest diverse workforces create healthy working environments and contribute to the stability of the communities and societies in which these businesses operate. “It’s a business strategy,” says Marine de Bazelaire, ¬¬¬¬Social Responsibility Coordinator for HSBC France. “It’s not philanthropy. It’s not sponsorship. If we’re trying to put together a diversity policy all over the world it’s because we have to ensure the cohesion of the teams, wherever they are. It’s strategic. It’s to keep them in line with our clients. If people feel comfortable with their job every study says they will be more productive. It’s really as simple as that and it’s very financially motivated.” 

Corporate efforts concerning discrimination and diversity have been most successfully instigated by international corporations doing business in France. Operating across lines of nation, culture and language is a necessary part of business for these corporations. The pressure supplied by diverse clientele and a diverse base of employees has provided additional incentive for these companies to lead France towards a more diverse and egalitarian workforce. Haute Couture fashion house Hermès, for instance, due to its history and principal activity of leathercraft, finds its potential pool of highly skilled workers very small. This company has recruited its artisans solely based on competency levels. The result of this objective and egalitarian recruitment has been a workforce with consistently high levels of diversity. For HSBC, a bank with more than 280,000 employees from over 77 countries, operating in a discriminatory context has not been an option. Because the bank carries a consistent brand name around the world, corporate controversy in one country will affect the bank’s stature in other countries. To operate within an atmosphere of discrimination and homogeneity which may be de rigueur in one country could have disastrous effects on brand perception in a country where diversity is taken for granted. 

The businesses leading these efforts, in their own companies and through specific corporate associations, espouse a philosophy which is in direct contrast to the ideas of republican universalism: that differences should be recognized, celebrated and utilized. The French government, in its commitment to the equality of all citizens regardless of race, has outlawed the use of racial statistics in corporate and other spheres. This has removed the means to assess whether or not the high ideals of equality are a reality in France’s workplace.  Corporations are left trying to circumnavigate these state-sponsored obstacles to demographic study by using patronyme (concluding ethnicity by studying an individual’s name) and the geography of addresses. As with ethno-racial statistics, these assessments have vast areas of ambiguity. More importantly, in their myopic focus they are unable to address the racial element of discrimination. Flawed as they are, these assessment mechanisms remain the only  means for measuring diversity within France’s corporations. 

Corporations hoping to address issues of diversity and discrimination within their own companies struggle to work with a state which has made it illegal to create statistics regarding ethnicity and who continues to play a passive role in leveling the playing field for its marginalized groups. The responsibility has fallen to the corporations, who have accepted it with alacrity, doing their best to work around the imposed restrictions. 

The fact that most people of immigrant background in France are collected in the suburban ghettos can actually assist corporations involved in diversity efforts, allowing them to covertly address issues of racism by looking at a candidate’s patronymy and their address. These are precisely the two giveaways that have traditionally been used by companies to avoid these job seekers. Studies conducted where identical résumés submitted with different applicant names addresses received vastly different treatment from most employers have proven that this is a legitimate place to begin the battle against discrimination.

But the banlieues are a cyclical environment, reproducing social disparity. While the French primary and secondary education systems are generally well respected, the schools in the banlieues suffer from under-funding and a hierarchical organization among teachers based on seniority. This insures that only the least experienced teachers end up in schools in the banlieues. These teachers move on as soon as they have acquired enough seniority to do so, usually after two years. 

Even after suburban students have beaten the odds and achieved their baccalaureat, the competitive system of higher education in France, where the best students are collected in a couple of universities, excludes those whose education to that point has been less than adequate. Corporations find the best candidates come from a small, upper tier of universities to which students from the banlieues have almost no access. For companies hoping to hire based solely on competence, the lack of diverse candidates with prestigious University degrees is alarming. Encouraging diversity at the hiring level is an important step, but for many job seekers from the suburbs the social and educational limitations of a suburban upbringing reduce their chances of even reaching the application rounds.

France’s corporate community has attempted to address the lack of diversity within its own ranks through initiatives completely independent of the French government. HSBC is one of more than 400 like-minded companies operating in France, both domestic and international, who have voluntarily signed “le Charte de la Diversité”. The charter is a series of commitments created in 2004 by l’Institut Montaigne, an independent, Paris-based think tank focused on issues of social and economic reform. The charter is based on the principle that the workforce of a company should reflect the diversity of the society in which it operates. This will produce positive economic and social results for the corporation, the state and the society. Success of charter initiatives is completely based on a given corporations commitment to its ideals. Once a company has signed on to the charter there is no system for monitoring its adherence to charter tenets. Companies are left to assess their own success at following through. Members commit to some level of transparency but are still hampered by the inability to quantify their results statistically. One of the charter’s fundamental tenets commits the signing company to the production of an annual report outlining the efforts made to eliminate discrimination and increase diversity. These reports describe the programs undertaken and the results achieved. Some fear that the lack of an external evaluation process, whether state or charter sponsored, and the unquantifiable nature of the results creates room for the charter to be used as a public relations tool by companies whose actual commitment to diversifying their workforces may be nominal.

While the last few years have seen great strides in reducing discrimination in the French workforce, questions of leveling the playing field, giving a helping hand to those who need it, are still contentious. Suggestions of, what is referred to in France as “American-style affirmative action” have met with harsh criticism from some segments of the French public, private and corporate spheres. The lack of ethno-racial data in France makes an ethnically based system of affirmative action impossible for the time being. But there are many who would suggest an adapted model, where the focus is not on creating quotas to include members of different ethnic minorities, but addressing the social issues of marginalized groups in certain geographical settings, particularly, the suburbs of French cities. While there is a strong concentration of ethnic minorities in these communities, they are far more diverse than the ways in which they are often represented. While a resident of one of the banlieues may be black, white, Arabic or Jewish, the address attached to his or her resumé will be understood as universally negative by many employers. 

Focusing on geography has its limitations as well. Non-Gallic French citizens from upper class areas may be subjected to discrimination based not on their location, but on the colour of their skin or their last name. As Ingrid Bianchi Lieutaud, Director of the consulting company Diversity Source Manager, and member of Club du XXIe siècle, an organization created to fight prejudiced representations of French minorities, explains, “you can be black living in the upper class neighbourhood and meet the same problem as the white living in the poor suburb. The problem is not really racism, but only the fear of difference.” This difference may be social or racial, and individuals from minority backgrounds in France today may struggle to find work based on discrimination on one or both of these fronts. 

The question of whether to combat discrimination on the plane of race or social status is limited by the illegality of ethnic classification in France. While the state remains committed to this law, it has dramatically increased legislation concerning discrimination in recent years. Most of this has been in response to European Union directives beginning 2000. This body of law outlaws discrimination based on race, age, religion, gender, sexual orientation, family situation, political opinion, disability and other qualifications. For example, in 2001 a law was passed which transferred the burden of proof in cases of workplace discrimination from the plaintiff to the accused, easing the way for claims of discrimination based on minority status. While the state has created the legal space for anti-discrimination efforts, it has left their realization in the hands of the private sphere. The Haute Autorité de Lutte Contre les Discriminations et pour l'Egalité (the High Authority of the Fight Against Discrimination and for Equality -HALDE), created in 2004, is an independent organization which seeks to aid those with discrimination grievances as they move through the litigation process. 

While the state has made some limited efforts towards addressing the employment needs of its diverse population, its primary role is best described as passive. As the corporations tackle the tough issues of how to create a diverse and discrimination-free work force, politicians who are reluctant to lead a traditionally conservative public through these difficult issues, have been happy to leave them in corporate hands. Sometimes these corporate developments are met with consternation by the political elite. Researcher and historian PapNdiaye describes the state’s response to the creation of the Charte de la Diversité as less than thrilled. “Those companies,” he says, “were moving in a direction where the state didn’t want to move.” In their willingness to rock the boat, corporations have eclipsed the state in working towards true equality in the workplace. 

In direct contrast to its reluctance to quantify on ethnic terms, the French state has made great strides in recent years regarding employment issues for women and people with disabilities. Both groups have seen their involvement in the corporate sphere increase dramatically. At present, 6% of a company’s employees in France must be disabled. The category of “disabled” may be compared to social and ethnic categorizations in its complexity and vast stretches of liminal spaces, yet the integration of those who are disabled was seen as vital enough to tackle these grey areas in order to bring a measure of equality to a marginalized group. The parallels with ethnic and social issues, according to Yannick Fallourd, a database controller/auditor for an HSBC affiliate bank in the south of France and a person who is disabled, are striking. The restrictions to employment and the reality of the glass ceiling are both issues that require intervention in order to change mentality, he says. 

The idea of a universal and all-encompassing French identity faced its first challenges during the social movements of the 1970’s. As regional, sexual and gender identities developed within France, they presented the concept of being gay and French, a feminist and French, a Breton and French. These new labels, which could not be seen as subversive, combined with the retreat of aggressive nationalistic identity rhetoric following the end of the Algerian war for independence and created space for the suggestion that groups do exist within France. Thirty years later, we see the result of those ideas in the employment laws regarding women and people who are disabled. The philosophical groundwork for legislation to recognize ethno-racial heritage has already been laid. This recognition would allow the French state to take an active role in helping corporations combat workplace discrimination and lack of diversity on social and racial levels. 

Until the French government commits itself to addressing the social and racial elements of its discrimination and diversity issues the situation will remain the same. The state should take a more proactive approach in this battle, following the lead of the corporations who have discovered the value of diversifying. The state should allow the use of ethno-racial statistics, clear the way for affirmative action in the universities and increase the quality of public schools in the banlieues in order to level the playing field for those whose ethnic and social backgrounds have put serious limitations on their opportunities for employment in the corporate sphere.




Sabeg, Yazid and Méhaignerie, Laurence, Les oubliés de l’égalité des chances (Institut Montaigne, January 2006)

Blivet, Laurent, L’entreprise  et l’égalité positive (Institut Montaigne, October 2004)

Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l’Égalité (HALDE), Rapport annuel 2005 (Documentation Française, 2006)








Claude-Hélène FOY, Manager of the Human Resource for interim in ADIA (21 June 2006)

Chantal Nedjib, Communication executive and Marine de Bazelaire, Coordinator of Corporate Social Responsibility in HSBC France (23 June 2006)

Laurent Blivet, Consultant in the Boston Consulting Group (23 June 2006)

Charles- Henri Filippi, CEO of HSBC France (25 June 2006)

Yannick Fallourd, Employee of Banque Dupuy, affiliate of HSBC (26 June 2006)

Pap Ndiaye, Researcher in EHESS ( 26 June 2006)

Olivier Ferrand, Managership Companies and Societies in MEDEF (27 June 2006)

Agnès Claire Baron, Director Job and Training in Hermes (27 June 2006)

Ingrid Bianchi Lieutaud, Member of the Club du XXIe siècle and Head of the Diversity Source Manager consulting company (28 June 2006)


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HIA Program:

France France 2006


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