Villepin names 2006 ‘year of equal opportunities’
PARIS, Dec 1 (AFP) - France is to take a sterner line on racial discrimination and make greater efforts to help youths in the impoverished, high-immigrant suburbs that exploded into violence recently, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said Thursday.
“2006 will the year of equal opportunities, as a big national cause,” he told a media conference, flanked by his ministers for education, employment and social cohesion.
Villepin was detailing measures he unveiled in the wake of the three weeks of unrest that came to end on November 16, after nearly 10,000 vehicles were torched and nearly 3,000 people arrested.
The violence was largely attributed to youths of immigrant families from France’s former colonial possessions in north and west Africa who were expressing their anger at feeling like outcasts in French society, victims of racism, chronic unemployment and police harassment.
The prime minister, seeking to tackle the root causes of the unrest, has promised to reverse the neglect many of the neighbourhoods have suffered by offering tax breaks on companies willing to invest there, better education opportunities and lowering the age for apprenticeships to 14 to catch the large numbers of children leaving school early.
On Thursday, he said companies found guilty of practising discrimination would risk fines of up to EUR 25,000 euros, and individuals would face fines of up to 5,000 euros.
His government and President Jacques Chirac have acknowledged that some employers throw job applications into the bin simply because the candidates have Arab or African origins.
Villepin also asked companies to examine whether job applications should be anonymous to prevent such selection, and said ways would be studied to make the French public service more ethnically diverse.
At no point, however, did he suggest France would adopt “positive disrimination”, often known as affirmative action in the United States and other countries that practise it, which gives preferential employment to underrepresented ethnic minorities.
France’s constitution currently prohibits such treatment, considering each citizen equal.
Testing by associations, to show whether companies, night-clubs or real estate agents were turning away people on racist criteria by presenting candidates of different backgrounds, would also be enshrined in legislation, Villepin said.
In addition, big firms were encouraged to move into designated downtrodden suburbs, especially by forming partnerships with small businesses in those areas and receiving tax breaks on half the capital invested.
“We need efforts from everybody, particularly from big private companies,” he said.
Public financing and loans to start companies would be boosted in those areas, Villepin said, adding that the zones may be expanded.
“I want to support activity in neighbourhoods that currently lack businesses, local shops, services and leisure areas,” he said, admitting that results from the zones had been “uneven” so far.
On the problem of truancy, Villepin called for parents to be held more responsible for their children attending school.
In addition, children across the country would be tested on their reading and writing skills at around age seven in order to identify pupils who could receive additional tuition after school.
And, while schooling up to age 16 remained “a right” the government would from September next year give an opportunity “to those youths who do not thrive at school to take different paths,” notably by being able to take paid apprenticeships from age 14, although they could return to classes any time they want. Proper job contracts would be available to them from age 15.
In addition, youths aged 16 to 22 who do not have a baccalauréat (high school diploma) and who come from “sensitive urban zones” would have access to minimum wage jobs in companies that would receive public financial aid for hiring them.
Talking about all the measures, and his aim to root them deeply in French society, the prime minister said that “sometimes it just needs a word to the person next to you, a look… an outstretched hand to change the course of a life.”
Subject: French news