French Arabs Try Anonymous Resumes

What's in a name? In France, it could mean a job — or at least a foot in the door.

Fed up over a stream of rejections, Fatima Talbi briefly took a new name — one that "sounds French" — to test her theory that bosses give foreign-sounding names the brush-off.

To her dismay, she was right.

Identifying herself as Catherine Lecomte on her resume, Talbi — who is French — quickly got an interview after two rejections for the same job using her real name.

It's just that kind of story that's fueling some in France to push for a solution apparently untried anywhere else: Anonymous resumes (search).

In the land where "liberty, equality and fraternity" is engraved on coins, Talbi's experience is depressingly common, and discrimination against French citizens of Arab, African or Asian backgrounds extends to things like housing searches.

"I was satisfied that I could prove this, but I was disappointed to have reached that point, changing my name to get there," said the 33-year-old Talbi. "It's pitiful."

A proposal being studied by lawmakers would require companies with more than 250 employees to only accept resumes without candidates' names, sex, age, address or photograph to give all an equal chance of getting that critical first interview.

Prospects that the proposal will become law dimmed last week when a leading lawmaker voiced his opposition.

But even if parliament doesn't act, France's national employment agency, known as ANPE (search), is launching a program at the end of January to test anonymous resumes in the Rhone-Alpes (search) region of southeast France. AXA (search), one of the world's largest insurance companies, plans to do the same.

That authorities are going to such lengths highlights failures of France's model of integration, which aims to assimilate immigrants by instilling in them the cultural values of their adopted country — at the expense of ethnic ways.

Many of those facing discrimination are, like Talbi, descendants of immigrants from France's former colonies in Muslim North Africa. Their parents crossed the Mediterranean in the 1950s to provide the manual labor the French refused to do.

Those immigrants — estimated to number 5 million — lived in shantytowns, later upgraded to housing projects, that ring major cities. Today those areas are often infested with gangs and crime.

School became the great leveler, where immigrant children were meant to be fashioned into the national mold. Even today, the notion that schools can resolve deeply rooted cultural issues thrives. This year, France banned Muslim head scarves and other religious symbols from the classroom.

"Schools made little French out of little immigrants. The problem is that these French, when it's time to find a job, end up [being treated like] their fathers," sociologist Philippe Bataille said.

It is four to five times more difficult for people from immigrant backgrounds to find work than for those of French origin, said Pascal Otheguy, deputy prefect of the Rhone-Alpes region, in charge of the ANPE project.

"We have a problem," Otheguy said.

Some cold realities are behind the push for anonymous resumes. Within 10 years, some 40 percent of France's active population will be retiring, so companies need to hire more people of foreign origins, he said.

"We're going to try to use this economic force to fight discrimination," Otheguy said in a telephone interview. "It's an opportunity. The price of non-integration is big."

For generations, France proudly trumpeted its integration policies, believing that assimilating immigrants was superior to encouraging communities to maintain their ethnic identities.

But an official report released last week denounced immigration policy over the past three decades, saying France is in a "crisis situation" and partly blaming the French integration model.

Immigrants face hurdles even outside the job market. In September, a court in the southern city of Grenoble handed a four-month suspended prison sentence and a $13,300 fine to a woman who refused to sell land to a Frenchman of Algerian origin.

A court in Lyon also is weighing the case of 11 nightclub bouncers who refused entry to a couple of North African origin. A European couple in similar dress was allowed into the clubs in situations set up by a weekly magazine to test for racism.

With discrimination so widespread, critics say the anonymous resume, or curriculum vitae, will not solve the problem.

"One can read an anonymous CV and call the person in. But who's to say, when the name is Mohammed, when the skin is dark, the employer won't throw the anonymous CV into the garbage," said Mouloud Aounit, head of the MRAP anti-racism group.

Born in France, Talbi got the October 2003 interview for a commercial post using her fake name. But when she unmasked her real identity, she wasn't hired. She sued, but her complaint was thrown out in September for insufficient evidence.

Talbi still doesn't have a full-time job. But she says she doesn't regret having revealed her true self in the interview.

"I was convinced that I was made for this job," she said. But "I'm not going to lose my identity for a job."