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French anti-racist watchdog swallowed by Rights Defender

By Sarah Elzas

The fight against racial discrimination in France is far from won, many campaigners say, but the country's official watchdog is being wound up and its duties taken over by a much broader mediation outfit.

By the end of April, the Halde, the high authority against discrimination, which since 2004 has helped victims of discrimination, will be replaced by a Rights Defender body, which will have a broader mission.

Campaigners worry discrimination will be not be a priority, though hiring discrimination still exists in France, something readily acknowledged by job seekers and even the government, which has made some moves to try to promote diversity in the workforce.

A yearly job fair focused on diversity draws in thousands of candidates looking to connect directly with recruiters.

“Diversity is people who come from foreign country, people with handicaps – these are all forms of discrimination in France,” explains Loreane Lemay of Carrefours pour l’emploi, the group that organizes the job fair, held this year in the Cité des Sciences in the north of Paris.

At first glance, the job fair looks like any other: eager-looking recruiters sitting in booths, young people in business dress clutching folders. But looking closer you see one recruiter talking through a sign language interpreter to a woman; elsewhere a man in a wheelchair hands out CVs.

Audrey Bidi is at the fair looking for a job as an administrative assistant. She has been having trouble because, as she puts it, she is a bit slow.

“I'm a slow person, and I have a medical treatment. The people who hire me are not very tolerant,” she explains.

At the fair there is also a range of people from many different origins, like Kalixte, who says she has been frustrated looking for a receptionist job.

“When I apply online, I’m told that my application is very interesting and not to be discouraged, but I get no positive responses,” explains the dark-skinned 23-year-old.

She says she hopes meeting recruiters face-to-face at the job fair will help. And this is what the organizers hope will happen as well.

Often minorities and disabled people cannot get a first interview, as recruiters see their photos or their foreign-sounding names and reject them outright.

Kevin, a dark-skinned 24-year-old from Paris who is looking for a Human Resources job, sometimes wonders if employers have not chosen him because of his skin color.

“You always have that impression,” he says. “But then, you can never be sure, so it’s a bit difficult to know.”

But some are sure: some 14,000 people brought discrimination complaints to the Halde last year. And this is why campaigner Carole Da Silva says she regrets its demise.

“I think it's a big waste. It's unfortunate for the message it sends to those who are victims of discrimination - and even for all of society,” says the founder of AFIP, an association that gives support to minority job seekers. She was also on an advisory board for the Halde.

The new Rights Defender body will take on issues previously dealt with by the Halde, but Da Silva worries discrimination will not be a priority for an agency with multiple missions.

And she particularly fears the effects on companies and their hiring practices:

“Unfortunately, companies that had an institution to remind them that discrimination is illegal, and to help them with promoting diversity, will loose their willingness to fight against discrimination.”

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