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For 20 Years, His Firm Called Him Antoine. Now Mohamed Is Suing.

2020-07-11 09:04:16

PARIS — Mohamed Amghar was a 40-year-old software salesman in the final stages of interviewing for a new job in November 1996 when, in his telling, his future boss made a request that left him speechless.

You’ll have to change your name to “Antoine,” the man said, even specifying, according to Mr. Amghar, not to use ‘‘Philippe’’ because there were already two in the office.

Mr. Amghar felt he had no choice. Still, he was ashamed — and angry.

“It’s a betrayal,” said Mr. Amghar, born in Paris to Algerian parents who arrived there in 1946, when Algeria was still part of France. “You are made to understand, at 40 years old, that ‘No, Mohamed, you aren’t truly French like everyone else.’”

And so, Mohamed became Antoine — on his email address, on his business card, on train and plane tickets, on name tags used at industry conferences, even on performance awards he collected over two decades at the company, Intergraph, an American software firm with French offices in Rungis, south of Paris.

Mr. Amghar, now 63 and retired, sued the company last year in a labor court in Créteil, south of Paris, accusing it of discrimination and moral harassment and asking for more than 440,000 euros, or nearly $500,000, in damages. The court held a hearing in March but won’t rule until next year.

The case has stood out because few racial discrimination suits reach French courts. And it resonates powerfully as France reckons with its colonial past, racism in the police and attitudes toward racial discrimination more generally in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis..

Jacques Toubon, France’s human rights ombudsman, noted this month in a landmark report that studies and official statistics were unequivocal on the extent and “systemic nature” of discrimination in France.

“People of a foreign origin or who are perceived as such are more exposed to unemployment, social insecurity, bad housing conditions and poorer health,” he wrote.

At the time Mr. Amghar says his boss requested that he use a different name, he had been assured of the position but had not yet signed a contract, and he had already quit his old job. He was divorced with three children — the oldest was 13 at the time.

“And I was not stupid,” Mr. Amghar said in an interview at his lawyer’s office in Paris. “I knew that being called Mohamed wasn’t the best passport, not only to get interviews but also a job.”

Mr. Amghar says that, relatively speaking, he was fortunate even to get the job given France’s record of discrimination. The sales manager position involved selling engineering software to energy or chemical companies like Total or Arkema and was well-paid.

He also acknowledges that he never filed an official complaint over his time at Intergraph, from 1997 to 2017.

“I thought to myself: ‘You didn’t say anything in the beginning, what are you going to say now?’” he said.

Intergraph, based in Alabama and bought in 2010 by Hexagon AB, a Swedish firm, did not deny that Mr. Amghar used a different name at the office, but said it had found no proof that management had requested the change.

Hexagon’s PPM division, which includes Intergraph, said in an email that after receiving Mr. Amghar’s complaint in 2018, it had conducted an “internal investigation” that involved reviewing documents and speaking with current or former employees.

But the company said it had “found no evidence of discrimination or that Intergraph France management required Mr. Amghar to change his name, or otherwise required Mr. Amghar to use the name of ‘Antoine’ when representing the company.”

“Intergraph has always adhered to a strict standard of ethics and professional conduct in order to prevent all types of discrimination, racism and harassment, which are subjects it takes very seriously,” the company said.

Hiring discrimination against Arab or Black minorities in France is widely documented. One recent study where fake applications were submitted to more than 100 blue-chip companies found that candidates with Arab-sounding names were nearly 20 percent less likely to get an answer than those with traditional French ones.

“In all the studies that have been done in France, you find significant discriminations based on origin, whether Arab or Black,” said Yannick L’Horty, an economist who led the study with a team of researchers who specialize in assessing labor discriminations and the impact of public policies in the job market.

Mr. Amghar’s case is unusual because he was, in fact, hired — which Intergraph is eager to point out.

A lawyer representing the company in France declined to comment. But in 2018, responding to a letter from Mr. Amghar’s lawyer that threatened to file a suit barring “amicable reparation,” the firm called the accusations of discrimination “surprising” because Mr. Amghar had been “recruited by Intergraph and stayed there for 20 years.”

In the letter, a copy of which was seen by The New York Times, the company said that Mr. Amghar’s former boss — who no longer works at Intergraph — did not remember asking him to change names, adding that “one cannot exclude the possibility” that Mr. Amghar himself had chosen ‘‘Antoine.’’

Mr. Amghar, who is meticulously organized, has kept business cards, pay stubs, emails, contracts, security clearance documents, awards, and more, all featuring the name “Antoine.”

And while there is no record of the November 1996 interview, Mr. Amghar bristles at the suggestion that he would have intentionally put himself in the awkward position of using two different names.

He was once stopped at an airport because his passport didn’t match tickets booked by the company. In meetings or emails, senior managers sometimes used Antoine while colleagues used Mohamed. On pay slips, he was ‘‘Mohamed Antoine.’’ One award from 2010 even used ‘‘Antoine (Mohamed) Amghar.’’

Mr. Amghar’s closest colleagues quickly learned the truth. But others said they were stunned to discover, months or even years after first meeting him, that Antoine was, in fact, Mohamed.

Raoul Tardy, a retiree who worked for Intergraph in Norway from 1991 to 2015, said that Mr. Amghar was introduced to him as Antoine. For several years, that was the name he used on the phone or at meetings.

“In the phone directory, it was Antoine. On the business card, it was Antoine. On the organizational chart, it was Antoine. It was Antoine everywhere,” Mr. Tardy said.

Then, in the early 2000s on a bus ride during a company gathering in Austria, he overheard colleagues call Mr. Amghar ‘‘Momo,’’ a nickname for Mohamed. Mr. Amghar told him the truth.

“I didn’t fall from my seat, but almost,” said Mr. Tardy, one of several former Intergraph employees who submitted written testimonies supporting Mr. Amghar in his suit. “What really shocked me is that none of the French managers tried to fix the problem.”

Mr. Amghar is cheerful and quick to joke, but some of his sarcasm hints at deep resentment. For his managers, a man of Arab origin in his position was “inconceivable,” he said.

“Mohamed can’t sign a 12 million euro contract and chat with the C.E.O. of a company,” Mr. Amghar said in mock outrage. “It’s not possible!”

Frédéric Blas, a former colleague who was an in-house lawyer at Intergraph France from 2011 to 2016, said Mr. Amghar “felt humiliated. There was a real bitterness, a frustration.”

There were no explicit instructions from senior managers to use the name Antoine, Mr. Blas said, but that was the name heard and used by those who didn’t work very closely with Mr. Amghar. It was “unsettling,” Mr. Blas added, and sometimes difficult for him not to use Antoine by force of habit.

Galina Elbaz, Mr. Amghar’s lawyer, who also works for the International League Against Racism and anti-Semitism — a French civil rights group that has taken interest in his case — said that criminal discrimination cases are rarely prosecuted.

“It’s five to six cases a year, barely,” Ms. Elbaz said, adding that often the victims are poor, working, and reluctant to spend months or years, and thousands of euros in lawyer fees, on an uncertain outcome.

Mr. Toubon, the human rights ombudsman, noted in his report that among those who had reported personal cases of job discrimination to his office, only 12 percent had taken legal action.

Victims do not always have hard proof of the mistreatment, the report noted, and many of them are reluctant to disrupt their professional lives by taking their employer to court.

In labor courts — like the one handling Mr. Amghar’s case — there are precedents in his favor. But cases often drag on, Ms. Elbaz said, as the judges are not professional magistrates and aren’t always well versed in anti-discrimination law.

Still, Mr. Amghar said it was important for him to file the suit. He recalled his father’s account of racism suffered in Algeria and then in France as a carpentry worker, and he remembered his parents’ faith that French meritocracy would give their children a different experience.

“If people like me, who did what was necessary to get good jobs, to get training, to live as citizens, are besmirched and denied our rights, where are we going?” Mr. Amghar said animatedly.

“I only have one name, I only have one nationality,” he added. “My name is Mohamed, and I am French.”


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