x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

French rugby success gives hope to the marginalised

As François Hollande launches his initiative to alleviate unemployment, poverty, poor housing and crime in the shabby suburbs where much of the immigrant community lives, he needs such role models to show success in life.

A visitor looks at Muslim women headwear inside an exhibition hall near Paris. Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters
A visitor looks at Muslim women headwear inside an exhibition hall near Paris. Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

On the morning after the French rugby club Toulon won Europe's Heineken cup final in May, the club's owner, Mourad Boudjellal, depicted the victory as a source of pride for people, like him, of immigrant stock.

Aiming his remarks at Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right, anti-immigrant Front National, Mr Boudjellal, the son of an Algerian father and Armenian mother, said: "Let's hope Marine takes note.

"When access to culture and knowledge is given to the children of immigrants and they are trusted, they get to do a few things for their country and city," he told the French television channel BFMTV.

"When you do not hold them back, they can do good things."

As François Hollande launches his initiative to alleviate unemployment, poverty, poor housing and crime in the shabby suburbs where much of the immigrant community lives, he arguably needs such role models to show success in life, from modest beginnings, is possible.

Mr Boudjellal's case is exceptional. A self-made millionaire, he made his fortune in publishing comic books before selling a controlling stake in his business, Soleil Productions, in 2011 to devote his energy and resources to the rugby club of his home city.

But there are other examples, elsewhere in the fields of sport and commerce but also in politics and the arts.

From the former French football captain Zinedine Zidane to Rachida Dati, the high-profile centre-right former justice minister who is mayor of a smart Parisian arrondissement, or administrative district, they offer a glimmer of hope to the sons and daughters of settlers from France's old Maghrebin and African colonies.

One left-leaning economist, Jacques Reland, says it is important to enable residents of the banlieues, as suburbs are called, to feel as French as those from more comfortable backgrounds. He sees an apparently growing presence of black and Arab-French faces in television news "vox pops" - random interviews with members of the public - as a welcome change from finding them only in media coverage of the sports, entertainment and crime.

But Mr Reland, who is head of European research at the Global Policy Institute in Paris, acknowledges that the trickle of success stories from the suburbs brings only superficial encouragement.

France, home to Europe's largest Muslim population, is no stranger to bold plans of action to improve daily life in the suburbs.

"There have been so many that French people no longer believe they will achieve anything," says Mr Reland.

"Whether this latest one succeeds may well depend on whether France is able to maintain and improve on its recent economic boost."

Recovery may be too strong a word after the financial turmoil and social consequences of recent years. But Mr Hollande was buoyed by second-quarter returns showing France had risen gingerly out of recession with growth of 0.5 per cent, twice as high as predicted.

He said the economy was "still fragile and precarious" but spoke of a feeling that "something is happening".

Mr Hollande's new initiative is hardly a Marshall Plan for the suburbs. But in difficult times, it represents what his government sees as its best hope of making a difference. Separately, France is working with Qatar on boosting small to medium-sized businesses.

Qatar is a major investor in France from outright ownership of the Paris Saint-Germain football club and palatial Parisian and Riviera hotels to stakes in leading companies including the oil giant Total, the Lagardère media group and the water and waste management firm Veolia.

After an earlier plan to aid disadvantaged areas provoked a political row amid claims from the far right and far left of "Islamification" or "financial colonisation", respectively, France and Qatar have settled on a more structured joint scheme worth €300 million (Dh1.45 billion).

"I'd like to see young people encouraged to make more of their lives," says Othman Nasrou, a Moroccan-born businessman and the president of the citizens' association in Trappes, a suburb south-west of Paris that was the scene of rioting in July. "But the main problem is the lack of skills and qualifications of young people, which contributes to unemployment rates rising to 40 to 50 per cent among the young in this area."

 

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