L'Oreal accused of racial discrimination
The case against L'Oreal, the country's best-known manufacturer of
beauty products, is the first of its kind since riots last year focused
attention on discrimination against immigrant jobseekers from the
The verdict to be delivered on Thursday, which could include a hefty
fine, will be seen as a measure of French resolve to tackle the problem.
Garnier, one of L'Oreal's top brands, has been accused of
instructing an employment agency to hire only slim women of the "BBR
type" as hostesses to hand out leaflets and samples of shampoos for a
supermarket promotion campaign in 2001.
"BBR" was shorthand for "Bleu Blanc Rouge" - meaning blue, white and
red, the colours of the French flag. Typical of the image the company
is accused of wanting to promote is that of the actor Virginie Ledoyen,
a model for L'Oreal until last year.
Prosecutors have argued that "BBR" is a well-known employers' code
for excluding people of Arab, African or Asian origin. The term is also
used in literature of the racist, far-right National Front party,
according to Samuel Thomas, vice-president of SOS-Racism, the
anti-discrimination group that brought the case.
"This sort of thing is ideologically objectionable
and must be stopped right away," he said. "The message it gives is that
the only valid sort of French people are white people. This simply
cannot be right."
L'Oreal, which was founded by an idiosyncratic hair dye inventor in
1907, has denied any discrimination. "Diversity is something that is
very important at L'Oreal and Garnier," Laurent Dubois, a former
managing director, said. "It would have been counterproductive to have
made such an order."
According to the prosecution, however, the company concluded that
young, white women would be more effective than men or black people at
promoting Garnier products in supermarket campaigns.
"White people might be frightened to have an Arab or a black person
explaining a product to them and even demonstrating it to them by
trying to massage their scalp," Thomas said. "Nobody is frightened of
white women, though, and it has been demonstrated that they have more
of an impact as sellers than anyone else."
The case has turned the spotlight on one of France's most sensitive
issues: the gap between the official doctrine that all French people,
whatever their origin, are equal, and the reality of racism excluding
youths of immigrant origin from the workplace. In the grim suburbs
ringing French cities, unemployment of up to 30 per cent is not unusual
and the "wrong" postcode on a job application can be enough to ensure
it ends up unopened in an employer's bin.
Frustration about this was believed to be one of the main reasons
for the outbreak of violence that set cities ablaze late last year.
Thomas has pioneered a technique for exposing racist companies that
involves sending black job applicants to interviews armed with tape
This has resulted in a court case against the Moulin Rouge
nightclub, which was fined $18,000 last year for telling a black job
applicant he could work in the kitchen but not on public view in the
cabaret venue's restaurant.
A key piece of evidence presented in the Garnier case was a fax
written by Therese Coulange, a former employee of Districom, a
communications company acting for Garnier. It spelt out Garnier's
requirements for the Adecco employment agency - "18- to 22-year-olds of
the BBR type".
Coulange said she had used the term "BBR" to refer to people who
could "express themselves correctly in French" rather than to whites.
The penal code allows for a maximum fine of $73,500 but whatever the
outcome, employers will no doubt now think twice before invoking the
colours of the flag.