Yazid Sabeg remembers the moment when he decided to stand up to racism in France. The day after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., Sabeg’s 14-year-old son was set upon by classmates at his elite Paris school. French-born Karim had to endure jeers and taunts of “Go back to your country, Arab.” Recalls Sabeg: “It was clear to me that my country, France, couldn’t admit that it was a multicultural land.”
Sabeg, chairman of $520 million high-tech group CS Communication & Systèmes, based near Paris, has since become a standard-bearer for a business-led movement that aims to end some of the glaring inequalities in the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Early last year, Institut Montaigne, a Paris think tank, published a call by Sabeg for the introduction of U.S.-style affirmative action policies to end discrimination against what he calls “visible minorities”—French nationals of North African or African origins.
The move touched a chord in a country that has been quick to criticize intolerance abroad while often ignoring it at home. Then-Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy threw his support behind Sabeg’s proposal. At the same time, Claude Bébéar, chairman of insurance and financial services giant Axa, was commissioned by the government to look into ways to end workplace discrimination. Last October, after prodding from Bébéar and Sabeg, the heads of 40 large French companies, including Airbus, energy group Total, PSA Peugeot Citroën , and steel giant Arcelor signed a “Business Diversity Charter.” The charter does not set hiring quotas, but companies must publish an annual account of the steps they’ve taken to promote diversity.
Although many French companies are starting to embrace the concept of diversity in the workplace, there is a split about whether this should be mandated by new laws. Sabeg favors a more forceful approach, such as denying companies access to the often ethnically revealing names of job applicants in initial recruitment stages. Others point out that affirmative action would conflict with French laws that forbid classifying citizens by race or religion. “Hiring practices have to open up, but right now it can only be done on a voluntary basis,” says Boston Consulting Group’s Laurent Blivet, who has authored a study on workplace discrimination in France.