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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 March 2007, 22:58 GMT 23:58 UK
Escaping France's ghettoes
By Lucy Ash
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

France has one of the worst youth unemployment rates in Europe and jobseekers from ethnic minorities face an additional hurdle - racism.

Hamid Senni
Even with a masters degree Hamid Senni struggled to find work

Every year 15,000 people leave France to start a new life in the UK.

Most of them are young and go there looking for work.

A few years ago Hamid Senni was one of them.

The child of poor Moroccan immigrants, he learned about discrimination early on.

At school in France his history teacher said he should change his name to Lionel.

"I know that teacher meant well," he said.

"She was no racist but she told me that with Hamid as a first name I stood no chance in French society. Throughout my youth, what she said turned out to be true."

The son of a car factory worker in the south of France, Hamid is the eldest of eight children.

He said his father pushed him to study hard at school: "He told me, you are the needle and your brothers are the thread. If you succeed, your brothers will follow you, so get every qualification you can."

No future

Although Hamid followed this advice and got a good economics degree he could not find work, not even as an unpaid intern.

He eventually went to Sweden, got a grant to study for a masters degree in business administration and worked for a machine tool company in the UK. He then landed a well-paid job at telecommunications giant Ericsson.

I had an MBA and management experience and they wanted me to go door-to-door selling vacuum cleaners
But his mother begged him to return to France, so a few years later he tried, yet again, to find work closer to home.

He sent off dozens of CVs, and after several weeks was offered one job as a travelling salesman.

"I had an MBA and a few years of management experience in a top European company and they wanted me to go door-to-door selling vacuum cleaners," he said.

At that point Hamid decided he had no future in France and moved to the UK where he worked for BP and Philip Morris before setting up his own consultancy firm.

Hamid has since written a book called De la Cite a la City about his journey from an immigrant ghetto in Valence to the financial centre of the world. Cite is the French word for council house estate.

Lucrative business

Aziz Senni
I saw my success as an act of social revenge
Aziz Senni, Hamid's cousin
Aziz Senni, Hamid's cousin, is another success story from a tough neighbourhood.

He was raised in the decaying tower blocks of Val-Fourre, Europe's largest council estate, in the suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie just west of Paris.

Today he runs a lucrative communal taxi business.

Aziz said he was first inspired by a TV documentary about a Swedish transport company which drives elderly people to the doctor and dentist.

Then he went to his father's village in Morocco and realised there was a similar system there with the "taxi brousse" or shared taxi.

In 2000 he launched his own model in Mantes under the slogan Cheaper than a Taxi, Faster than a Bus.

Today, he operates 50 vehicles and employs nearly 100 people, many from Val Fourre.

"The first few years I had no social life and worked like crazy because I felt I had something to prove," he said.

"I saw my success as an act of social revenge.

"At school teachers never told us that we could own our own companies, or become businessmen."


Like Hamid, Aziz has also written a memoir of his struggle to reach the top - The Social Elevator Is Broken... So I Took the Stairs.

The title plays on the French concept of "l'ascenseur social" by which France's secular Republican values were supposed to promote social mobility and lift minorities into the French mainstream.

"Basically all I wanted to say is in the title. Yes, of course we are discriminated against," he said.

"Of course it is tough for young people from the suburbs but it's no good sitting around waiting for someone to fix the elevator.

"We can't rely on the state to help us - we need to take the stairs."

He is using proceeds from his book to set up scholarships for young entrepreneurs from the ghetto.

Meanwhile, Hamid said: "I feel French thanks to London but in France I am an immigrant."

"We can stay in France and remain on the substitute benches or leave like many French football players.

"Thierry Henri or Zinedine Zidane scored goals in the Champions League, playing for Arsenal or Madrid... It was the same for me, working for BP and Ericsson!"

He added that eventually the two football players scored goals for France and he hopes to follow their example.

Widespread rioting

Firefighters extinguish a fire in a burning car during the rioting
Thousands of cars were set ablaze during the street violence
Back in Paris Aziz is courted by politicians, especially since 2005 when riots broke out in dozens of cities across France.

The unrest was sparked off by allegations of police harassment but exclusion and joblessness were also key factors.

Now Aziz is diversity spokesman for Francois Bayrou, the Third Man in French politics who heads the centrist Union for French Democracy.

The young entrepreneur said he is worried that leading presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy is adopting far-right slogans on the heated topic of immigration.

He told me: "Sarkozy says, 'France, you love it or you leave it.' But I have a different slogan: France, you love it and you change it."

The country is struggling because people are filled with hatred
On the other side of the channel, Hamid said the elections next month mark a turning point.

He believes if France does not now pull itself together, the country will enter a period of irreversible decline.

And he warned that France was now paying a high price for racial prejudice both in terms of the economy and social unrest.

"The French are making discrimination accepted but now the country is struggling to create jobs, the country is struggling to create values, the country is struggling because people are filled with hatred," he said.

"They don't respect each other or the Republic. So what goes around comes around.

"The day you start thinking 'diversity', maybe all of this will stop and the country will start creating jobs again."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 29 March at 1102 GMT.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 2 April 2007 at 2030 GMT.

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