- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

PARIS

French film director Yamina Benguigui is hoping her latest documentary on racism in the workplace will get people talking about affirmative action, a policy that does not exist in France.

“Le Plafond de Verre” (“Glass Ceiling”) is a series of sometimes very emotional firsthand accounts of discrimination faced by people from immigrant communities, mostly black and North African Arab, when trying to find jobs.

Rather than going through the classic cinema or television distribution network, Miss Benguigui has been holding screenings each Thursday in a Paris cinema in the St. Michel district and has circulated copies for special showings and debates across the country.

“I knew that when young people came together to see the film on a specific night, especially the black and Arab sons and daughters of immigrants, the screening would turn into a public forum,” says Miss Benguigui, who was born in France of Arab-Algerian parents.

“Young people ask questions about the discrimination they have been experiencing in the search for work.”

Compiling facts and figures on ethnic discrimination in the workplace is difficult in France. In what was seen originally as a bid to prevent discrimination, French law forbids the use of race or religion to compile figures of any kind.

There are no official answers, for instance, to questions about the percentage of North African Arabs or black Africans in the top schools or the number of Arab or black executives at major French companies because the law prohibits such research.

For the same reason, implementing an American-style affirmative action program with quotas to enter police forces, or large retail groups, would be impossible unless the law is changed.

“Politicians in France are mostly horrified to even think about such policies because they go against what are called the values of the republic,” Miss Benguigui says. “I think that unless there is pressure from the ground up, politics in France will never change.”

The screenings also have been attended by local politicians, including Michel Charzat, the Socialist Party mayor of Paris’ 20th district. He said there were interesting elements to the Anglophone model but that “a quota system is a danger.”

“We must address this problem on a district-by-district plan, based on where people live, not on their origins,” Mr. Charzat said.

Excerpts from the film can be poignant and revealing.

“My parents were born in Algeria, but I look totally Norwegian,” says Meziane Ould Amziane, a blond, blue-eyed section manager at Le Citadium, a large Paris retail chain, “so they love me at this job.”

The laughter fades when Abdel Boulhassoun, an executive with the retail catalog firm La Redoute, speaks. “At a recent gathering of about 1,000 executives, I looked around to see who was there. There was one black woman from the Caribbean,” he says. “There were no Arabs except myself. Everyone was white and Gaulois French.”

“Now that I am out there looking for work, I cannot forget that I am not French like other French people,” adds Nesrine Yahia, born in eastern France of parents from Tunisia.

Armed with more than a master’s degree, Miss Yahia, 25, is seeking employment as a legal adviser in urban development.

“Already I have been turned down for a job that was given to a French French girl with no experience and nowhere near my level of diplomas,” she says.

“Current French law that is, in a sense, colorblind was, in theory, meant to protect minorities,” Miss Benguigui says, “but it has had the opposite effect. The country has been able to hide behind the laws and not examine or admit to the pernicious and invisible discrimination the children of immigrants face.

“Some have the same diplomas as the Gallic French but often cannot even get job interviews.”

Miss Benguigui says the wave of rioting by teenagers and young men — mostly of immigrant origins — that devastated parts of suburbs across the country in November was linked to discrimination in the job market.

“The rioters were the younger brothers of those students with good diplomas not even worth a job interview because they are black and Arab,” she says. “If they have executive-level diplomas but cannot get their foot in the door, what kind of a message does that send?”

TF1, France’s huge private television station, last week announced that black journalist Harry Roselmack, originally from Martinique, will be a stand-in anchor for its prime-time evening newscast. It’s the first time that a nonwhite person will anchor a prime-time news show in France, decades behind the United States or Great Britain.

Miss Benguigui, who has written and directed a number of films on immigrant communities and on discrimination, says political parties and high schools were hoping to organize private screenings of the film.

“This is only the first step,” she says. “Affirmative action is finally being discussed. I think it is the only road for France to take.”

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