France's problem with discrimination in the workplace

There is no clear definition of what French values are, and this leads to double standards.
- Dr Joseph Downing
Cours_Julien_(Marseille) 480 360
Cours Julien (Marseille). Bryce Edwards, CC BY 2.0
As a secular republic, France does not collect statistics on religious faiths or ethnic groups. While some politicians argue that this policy helps avoid positive discrimination and lobbying by special interests, the lack of data poses a challenge to economists and policymakers looking to address discrimination.

In this article, Dr Joseph Downing discusses the politics of the pioneering trials of policies aimed at tackling workplace discrimination.

The marginalisation of ethnic and religious groups in France was thrust to the centre of the political agenda following a series of Islamist terror attacks during 2015 and 2016, often carried out by French-born citizens.

Although it is impossible to generalise on the individual motivation behind these atrocities, the events have led some politicians and commentators to reflect whether more could be done to assimilate France’s estimated 5m Muslims, one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe, to improve national security and unity.

Monitoring levels of diversity by employers is one of the key methods of measuring social integration. If ethnic and cultural minorities’ representation in the workplace reflects the composition of the local population, then a workplace can claim to have non-discriminatory recruitment practices.

But in France, accurately tracking the presence of religious faiths or ethnic groups in the workplace is impossible due to the lack of data. This is due to the country’s status as a secular and assimilationist republic. Contrasting with the Anglo-Saxon model of separation frees religion from state interference, French separation has evolved to exclude religion from public space, with no official recognition of ethnic or religious difference by public bodies.  

Dr Downing, a specialist on French identity and politics from LSE’s European Institute, argues that this situation gives employers an unhealthy level of autonomy. He said: “The lack of census data on religious group or ethnicity means employers can be as racist as they want to be, because nobody has the tools to scrutinise their behaviour.”

While at the completely secular national level there is no means to address discrimination, Dr Downing found innovation at the level of local politics. His research focused on a project in the city of Lyon in the south-east of France, where local government have actively pursued greater diversity in their workforce by deploying monitoring and inclusion tactics that are anathema at France's national level.

Dr Downing said: “Overall, the culture in local politics is much more open to different policy initiatives compared to the French central state. In Lyon for example, there was recognition that a lack of diversity in the workplace was a problem and their policies aimed to address this.”

Before many of these projects are allowed to realise their potential, they are often cut down. Dr Downing said: “One of the challenges around local level of policy innovation are that they are constantly subjected to negative political and media attention. When new policies are noticed by a journalist or politician who wants to gain quick political kudos, they will go on a big polemic to force local politicians to back down."

"Ultimately, this reinforces a sense of discrimination for citizens of minority religious faiths or ethnic groups, and destroys policy innovations before they can be effective.” Dr Downing adds.

Local level change is partly a response to the increasingly globalised, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic French society, which critics argue is incompatible with the classic notion of a secular republic.

But Dr Downing found that the French model still draws widespread support across society. He said: “I expected local politicians to say that the French model is outdated and incompatible with modern life, and the Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism is the future. But many of the people I interviewed said the fundamental idea of radical equality across ethnic and religious group is actually a powerful one, and worth pursuing.”

Dr Downing also spoke to members from minority religious faiths and ethnic groups, and found similar support for the secular system. He said: “Many individuals from minority groups I interviewed do not want to be singled out or treated differently. What they hope for is genuine equality.”

According to Dr Downing, the cultural, political and economic barriers to achieving equality in France are substantial. He said: “There is no clear definition of what French values are, and this leads to double standards. You could be a white French person and behave in a lot of ways which aren’t socially acceptable, and people don’t really seem to mind. If you belong to an ethic minority and do the same thing, it becomes a big problem.”

France’s economy, where unemployment has hovered around ten per cent since 2010, means that employers can afford to be highly selective about who they recruit. Unemployment is particularly acute for 15-24 age group, and can be as high as 40%, rising to 60% for youth of ethnic minority origin in poor parts of Paris, Lyon and Marseille.

Dr Downing said: “It’s much easier to discriminate when opportunities are scarce, and 100 people are applying for the same job.”

Additionally, France’s political and media environment can appear to be more hostile to ethnic and religious minorities compared to its European neighbours. With French presidential elections due in May 2017 and opinion polling has consistently indicating that strong support for the far-right Front National (FN) party, led by Marie Le Pen, migrants are likely to remain a political target in the immediate future.

Dr Downing said: “There will be a strong temptation for politicians from the more centrist Republican and the Socialist parties to move to the right to attract voters from FN. The recent terror attacks have meant that many politicians have taken a hard-line against assimilationist policies, and it seems that the majority of the public supports them.”

Dr Downing adds: “France’s political culture makes it difficult for local level experiments to prove their worth, and this makes policy innovation a challenge. But in France, probably more than anywhere else in Europe, new ideas are required to give everyone a fairer chance.”