Society

How A French Ghetto Survives Off A Bustling Underground Economy

The Marais neighborhood in Schiltigheim (French Alsace region)
The Marais neighborhood in Schiltigheim (French Alsace region)
Google street view
Arthur Frayer

SCHILTIGHEIM — We didn’t see the big grey sedan coming, before it had stopped in the middle of the parking lot in the downtown shopping center. There are a dozen little boys killing time between the parked cars, drinking soda and talking football.

Welcome to the Marais housing project in Schiltigheim, on the outskirts of Strasbourg in the eastern French region of Alsace. This troubled urban area is stuck between the canal that flows toward the German border and the tramway heading to the center of Strasbourg, a favorite tourist destination and home to the European Parliament.

Two men emerge from the vehicle — one extra-large with rings on his fingers, and his shorter companion in a tank top way too big for him. They shake some hands, and ask the boys how “the family” is doing.

Quickly, though, they move on to serious matters: they are here on business. But nothing for the vice squad, no drugs, no guns, just T-shirts and beach shorts. Soon enough, the bigger guy opens the trunk while the other hangs the clothes labeled Yves Saint Laurent, Diesel, Dolce & Gabbana and Rivaldi, among others. Other bags of clothes are waiting at the back of the car.

One of the sellers announces very low prices: 25 euros for a T-shirt, and 25 for shorts. In stores, the same products cost between 200 and 300 euros.

Is it real or fake?” one of the boys asks.

“It’s only real stuff,” says the big guy. “Check out the fabric! You pay five euros more if you buy the same product from the gypsies at the market.”

We saw the same sellers a few hours earlier in the streets of Neuhof, another one of Strasbourg’s underprivileged areas. When we ask them why they moved, they say there were too many police around. But they won’t stay long here either. They pack up their merchandise even though they didn’t sell anything, and head to another neighborhood.

About 10 businesses like this one flourish in each poor neighborhood. Street peddlers, improvised hair stylists, unlicensed taxi drivers, scooter retailers, non-declared mechanics, home cooks — anything that is neither legal nor terribly harmful.

This little “resourcefulness” economy, which official statistics don’t account for, is the way many poor people who live in housing projects survive. “It is very difficult to measure this black economy,” says Didier Lapeyronnie, an author who dedicated an entire chapter of his book Ghetto Urbain (Urban Ghetto) to the subject. “The poorer the neighborhood, the more important this economy. Some neighborhoods can’t even live without it.” In the neighborhood where he stayed in Western France, women didn’t shop in regular stores. “It became the norm.”

Halal activities

In the heart of the Marais, these little businesses bring in between 200 and 400 euros a month. A significant amount for residents here. But no barometer is as precise as the pizzeria down the block. In fact, the owner keeps a big book in which he writes what every customer owes him and what they had to drink and eat for the past 30 days. But he will have to wait until the fifth of the month to be paid. That’s when unemployment benefits and the RSA (the state allowance for the poorest citizens) arrive. In here, credit is the basic economic rule.

The “undeclared” extras supplement the state benefits and the very low salaries of working people. It allows them to earn a monthly 1,000 euros — the French minimum wage — even if only 50% of it is made legally. But most of the people living on these side businesses don’t consider them illegal. They characterize this survival tehcnique as “halal,” as opposed to “haram” (forbidden), which usually has to do with drug trafficking.

When the words “small business” are uttered here, fingers tend to point at Zitoun, with his missing teeth and his oversized tracksuit. He is always nearby, offering short rides on his brand new scooter. Zitoun is 43 and has two nicknames around here: “the handyman” and “the bike thief.” It makes everybody laugh, including him, although he doesn’t really like the second moniker. “It’s been years since I’ve stolen bikes,” he says.

We admit that we have trouble believing him. When he opens the door to his apartment’s cellar, he points at his four bikes. The red one is missing a pedal, another one is missing gears, and two others also need repair. He swears that they are “abandoned” bikes that he will fix as soon as he finds the necessary pieces. In another cellar, two scooters are set against the wall, awaiting repair.

A bike for 15 or 20 euros

A few years ago, neighbors complained about his small business, which took up too much space in the buildings’ common areas. The police had come to check the numbers on the pieces and the engines.

“When the bike is fixed, I can sell it for 15 or 20 euros,” he says. “Sometimes for 50 when it’s in really good condition.” He’s sold 20 this year alone. One time he sold a whole batch of scooters for 400 euros to a neighbor going to Maghreb for the summer.

His other nickname, “the handyman,” says it all. Indeed, Zitoun renovates apartments, empties cellars, repairs cars and gardens. But he is certainly not the only one making money this way.

Other neighborhood characters

Aïssa, 28, also lives in the neighborhood. He has been a cook in a Mexican restaurant, a hairdresser, a street peddler, a painter and a dealer for a clandestine poker operation.

Leïla, 31, gave French and math lessons to neighbor children to help pay for her law studies.

Medhi, 28, offers mechanic services, charging 20 euros for an oil change. He can also fix computers, which he learned how to do during computer training after he was fired from General Motors in 2008.

Sami, a gentle 24-year-old giant, has worked as a mover and bouncer for nearby nightclubs. These are in addition to his “contrat d’insertion” (special contracts to work with young people who have dropped out of school early and need help finding jobs), which earns him 627 euros per month. But lately it has become difficult to find a security job without a special qualification certificate.

There’s also Majid, who became a cab driver with his Renault Clio for people in the neighborhood. For a small amount, he would go to Mc Donald’s and pick up someone’s order. For 10 euros, he would take people to the other side of the city. For 20 euros, he would drive in the middle of the night and pick up night clubbers without drivers licenses. He used to spend five euros on gas, and pocket the rest. He made up to 250 euros a month. “That way I could afford to buy food without cutting into my 410 euros state allowance,” he explains. But a car accident put an end to his small business. Since he didn’t have enough money to repair the car, the Renault Clio ended up in a junkyard.

An available hairdresser

Mouch has managed his business well. For a long time, he was the one and only “unofficial” hairdresser around, before moving on to another business. His salon was his building’s staircase, and for nine years he would cut hair for five euros while the official hairdresser charged 15 euros for the same haircut. There were 20, sometimes 30, people waiting in line on the stairs. “I cut every hair in the neighborhood. I practiced all sorts of hairstyles.”

Mouch was available virtually any time. “One day, a buddy called me at one in the morning to get a haircut before leaving for his party.” During holidays such as Ramadan, he is fully booked. He did so well that he even offered a loyalty card, with which you could get 15 haircuts for 50 euros.

Paradoxically, he and the others don’t really picture themselves doing stable jobs. They all tell stories about dropping out of school too early, having criminal records, or about useless professional training. These sorts of undeclared commercial enterprises are also a way for some with criminal records to avoid paying court fees that would normally be deducted from their regular salaries.

Other areas around Strasbourg also have good deals. The “Esplanade” neighborhood is famous for its home service hairdressers. For an emergency car fixing, you’d better go and see the “Blacks” of the Koenigshoffen hostel who set up open-air garages where cars are stored on cinder blocks, waiting for new wheels.

These services often rely on a barter system. No money is exchanged, and no written proof is there to seal the deal. These swaps are invisible to the people who live outside of these neighborhoods. “If I do some gardening for someone, he’ll return the favor by doing grocery shopping for me,” says Zitoun the handyman. “That way, I can also pay my debts. If I owe money to a guy, I can renovate his apartment and he’ll wipe my slate clean.”


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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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