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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 suburbs.

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.

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"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 recorders.

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.