MANTES-LA-JOLIE, France — Morocco-born Frenchman Aziz Senni is not waiting for help from the state.
“It is up to us,” he says, gazing levelly at his interviewer. “We must be the ones to change France — the society, the politics, everything.”
Raised in the grim Val Fourre neighborhood of the Paris suburb Mantes-la-Jolie, Senni has thrived where so many other young Muslims in France have struggled by establishing a lucrative business — and one based on a traditional North African model, no less.
Motivated by what he calls “social revenge,” Senni and his brother established Alliance Transport Accompagnement (company slogan: “cheaper than a taxi, faster than a bus”) in 2000.
“For me, making it has been through hard work. … But this kind of feeling of social revenge was also important. I felt a very strong need to achieve some kind of social mobility,” Senni, 30, said during an interview in his main office, located in this town 30 miles outside of Paris.
A practicing Muslim, Senni has fully embraced the values of his adopted country.
“I feel that I am French first, more than an Arab,” he said.
“After all, there are a lot of ways to be French. … You are not French by religion. But there is still this old notion of being French, which is slowing [integration] down,” Senni said.
North African model
Based on taxi services found in North Africa, Senni's ATA ferries passengers to and from destinations in large shared vans, thereby increasing the number of stops each vehicle makes, but decreasing the overall cost for each customer.
His brother soon dropped out of the endeavor, but Senni pushed ahead.
It has proved a success: he says he earns more than 1.5 million euros a year (about $1.94 million), has opened franchises in more than half a dozen locations around France, and is eyeing nearly a dozen other cities in which to set up shop. He now operates 50 vehicles and employs nearly 100 people, many of whom are from Val Fourre.
President Jacques Chirac visited the opening of his office in 2005 as part of an attempt to highlight success stories among immigrants.
Exception, not the rule
Senni’s success is the exception rather than the rule in the suburbs (banlieues) of France’s big cities.
France has the second-largest economy among countries using the euro, but the unemployment rate has hovered around 10 percent for the past two decades. The joblessness rate for people under 25 is at around 22 percent, according to figures from the French Labor Ministry released earlier this year.
A separate study issued by the French government in October said that unemployment in many of the suburbs of major cities was around 21 percent and rising. Other reports suggest a far higher figure.
November’s riots in heavily Muslim areas paralyzed France and shocked the world.
After the unrest, the government vowed to address what was seen as the critical factor: the economic plight of immigrants and their children.
“The republic is at a moment of truth,” Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said at the time. “What is being questioned is the effectiveness of our integration model.”
Blow for the government
The government was dealt a blow in April when it withdrew a new law that was intended to help the country’s youth by making it easier for employers to both hire and fire young workers.
The legislation provoked massive protests from an informal alliance of middle-class students and union workers concerned about losing what safeguards they had, and proved that any changes to employment would be an incremental, and contentious, process.
Aurore Wanlin, a French analyst at the London-based Center for European Reform, said unemployment is so pervasive for all young French adults partly because they spend a long time in education, thus entering the job market later. But youths in the suburbs face a further set of challenges.
“These young people in the banlieues are stuck in a vicious cycle because they want to integrate, to get jobs, but they are unable to do so — with no car, no driving license and less opportunities to education,” she said, adding that rigidity in the employment market was hampering job growth for everyone in France, not just for young minorities.
The bittersweet taste of Senni's success is reflected in the title of his memoir, “The Social Elevator was Broken … So I Took the Stairs,” published last year and playing on the French concept of “l’ascenseur social,” by which France’s secular Republican values were supposed to lift minorities into mainstream success.
Awareness of the lack of opportunities for many minorities in France is never far from Senni’s mind. Increasingly, French Muslims are heading to places like Britain and Dubai, where they feel they have a better chance for success.
One of Senni's cousins earned several advanced degrees but was still unable to find work in France. Now, he is running a successful management consulting company in London.
Arrival in Val Fourre
Senni, the eldest of six children, emigrated to France with his family when he was six weeks old.
His family settled in the heavily Muslim neighborhood of Val Fourre, which was to become a hotbed of unrest in the early 1990s.
But the estate has showed signs of improvement: More than 40 cars were torched during November’s riots, which saw a total of around 7,000 vehicles burned nationwide.
Senni is critical of the state’s failure to bring immigrants into mainstream French society, pointing to a dearth of education about the heritage of people from North Africa, Africa or the Middle East.
“Some of us can have a real identity crisis every day of our lives, trying to adjust to the reality of the French society,” he said.
Touch of hypocricy
Part of his own identity crisis was resolved when traveling abroad, particularly during visits to extended family in Morocco.
“My relatives say, ‘You are so French.’ To them, I am just a young Frenchman who is making it,” Senni said.
In France, however, it is often otherwise. He hinted at a touch of hypocrisy among his fellow countrymen who continue to use the “immigrant” label on the second- or even third-generation of non-white French citizens.
“French people don’t have any problem accepting (French national soccer team captain Zinedine) Zidane (who is of Algerian descent) or someone like that,” but that is not the case with noncelebrities, he said.
Yet, Senni is optimistic about the future and about improved opportunities for young minorities, but he knows it is an uphill climb.
He referred to a recent contentious debate over immigration in France.
“(Interior Minister Nicolas) Sarkozy says, ‘France, you love it or you leave it.’ It is very disappointing that he’s adopting far-right slogans,” Senni said.
He suggested a different slogan. “France,” Senni said, “you love it and you change it.”
Special correspondent Karim Baouz contributed to this report.