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Last Updated: Friday, 4 November 2005, 13:59 GMT
France's disaffected Muslim businessmen
France has been stunned by rioting in low-income suburbs dominated by immigrants. But ghetto youths are not the only French people of foreign origin to feel sidelined.

As part of a series on French Muslims, Henri Astier spoke to two businessmen about their perception of prejudice against them.

Yazid Sabeg
Mr Sabeg is the only Arab head of a large French corporation
Yazid Sabeg is a rarity among France's business elite. He is North African. And those two facts, he believes, are not unconnected.

"A lot of people don't like my face," says the 55-year-old industrialist.

Whether or not corporate France is "viscerally racist", as Mr Sabeg contends, it certainly lacks diversity.

The chief executive of CS, a big communications group, he is the only person of North African origin to head a leading French company.

His father, an Algerian worker, came to France in 1952. Young Yazid studied hard and worked as a civil servant before setting up his own finance company.

In certain circles the Algerian war continues
Yazid Sabeg
In the early 1990s Mr Sabeg took over CS, a contractor in the sensitive field of secure communications for defence and aerospace.

The takeover met with fierce resistance. "The establishment, notably the military establishment, did not like it," he recalls.

In 1991 intelligence services wrote a scathing report about Mr Sabeg, based on false rumours that he was financing Algerian militants.

Investigative journalist Christophe Deloire - who uncovered the report - says the rumours about Mr Sabeg were malicious.

"It looks as if somebody tried to sink him," Mr Deloire said.

Damaged relationship

Mr Sabeg says he has no idea who started the whispering campaign. But he is convinced people with intelligence contacts are still trying to undermine him

"Some people spend their whole lives spinning tales, because in certain circles the Algerian war continues," he says.

FRENCH ISLAM
Evry mosque
Five million Muslims (estimate)
35% Algerian origin (estimate)
25% Moroccan origin (estimate)
10% Tunisian origin (estimate)
Concentrated in poor suburbs of Paris, Lille, Lyon, Marseille and other cities
"In their minds you can't be both Arab and French."

Mr Sabeg says the reputation of his firm is his best protection. CS is a listed company with 4,000 employees in France and abroad and a 400m-euro turnover.

"I am established. To sink me they would have to find more than rumours, and that's all they've got."

Still, the company has suffered. It took Mr Sabeg three years to get the security clearance needed to work on military projects.

He says his relationship with the defence ministry never completely recovered.

His claim that his Algerian roots have been used against him is hard to verify.

But what is certain is that you see few black and brown faces in France's boardrooms. The only Arab entrepreneurs you are likely to meet run corner shops.

Going halal

For an illustration of the problems faced by North African-born businessmen at the other end of the economic ladder, a good place to start is Evry, south of Paris.

The town has an Avenue des Champs-Elysees, but it is a far cry from its grand Parisian namesake.

Djaiziris' supermarket in Evry
The Djaiziris' supermarket has been renamed
Much of Evry consists of low-income housing estates that white people fled long ago.

In 2002 Abdel and Mohamed Djaiziri bought a small supermarket chain in one of bleakest of these estates, Les Pyramides - named after one of Paris' glitziest areas.

The Tunisian brothers then did a fateful thing. They turned the supermarket, affiliated to the Franprix chain, into a halal shop.

It was purely a business a decision, they insist: In a predominantly Muslim area, there was no point stocking pork or alcohol that would stay on the shelf.

"When a shopkeeper has a range of 15,000 products available to him, he will choose those that will sell," Abdel Djaiziri said in a recent interview.

But the mayor felt the move contributed to creating a ghetto by making life difficult for non-Muslims, and tried to get the store closed on health grounds.

There was nothing to buy, so we lost all our customers
Abdel Djaiziri
The Djaiziri brothers' problems got even worse in early 2003, when Franprix stopped supplying them.

"There was nothing to buy, so we lost all our customers," Mr Djaiziri says.

It took the brothers three months to find other suppliers - by which time they had got heavily into debt to pay the rent and salaries.

Ongoing fight

Mr Djaiziri says he does not know why Franprix withdrew the franchise. Perhaps the chain wanted to steer clear of the conflict with the mayor, he speculates.

Franprix, when contacted, declined to comment.

I want them to go. I want to rehabilitate the square and bring in quality shops
Evry Mayor Manuel Valls
Two years on, the business is still standing - although Mr Djaiziri says the debt remains a big burden.

But relations with the mayor, he says, have improved. Health inspectors still come round regularly, but the visits are courteous.

"I consider the matter closed," Mr Djaiziri says.

The problem is that Mayor Manuel Valls does not.

"The store is filthy," he says. "I want them to go. I want to rehabilitate the square and bring in quality shops."

It is impossible to say for sure the brothers suffered on account of their origin.

They had no previous experience in retailing - and Mayor Valls, a socialist with a record of reaching out to minorities, is no xenophobe.

But their experience - as well as Mr Sabeg's and the general scarcity of immigrant entrepreneurs in France - helps explain why some Muslim businessmen feel as marginalised as ghetto youths.


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