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Portrait Of French Unemployment, A View From The Ghetto

With French unemployment at record levels, times are tough for clients and workers of an unemployment agency in one of Marseille's poorest, most crime-ridden areas.

The number of unemployed rose by 5.7% in 2013 in France
The number of unemployed rose by 5.7% in 2013 in France
Jean-Baptiste Chastand

Like many other countries around the world, France has seen its unemployment figures grow steadily since the beginning of the financial crisis. President François Hollande had repeatedly pledged to “invert the curve” by the end of 2013, but the latest figures show that he has failed to do so, as the number of unemployed rose by 5.7% in 2013. Here's how joblessness looks from the inside.

MARSEILLE — The employment agency building is hard to find. Though located in the heart of the northern quarter, right next to one of Marseille’s toughest ghettos, you have to zigzag between countless warehouses to finally reach one of the country’s busiest employment agencies: the “Carré Gabriel,” which also happens to be located in one of the city’s poorest areas.

Open between 8:30 a.m. and 4:15 p.m., the shiny new premises are rarely empty. “The first thing we learned is that unemployed people prefer to come in here than use our website,” explains director Annie Lopez.

Her colleague Jean-Marc Robert adds: “The folks from the northern quarter need to talk. Facing just a machine drives them crazy.”

A security guard is constantly posted near the reception desk to deal with tense situations, which are common. Last year, at least 13 assaults were reported. “A simple problem with parking spaces or with the copy machine can sometimes get out of hand and turn violent,” Lopez says.

Still, most of the trouble happens when there’s a problem with the payment of social benefits, which often have terrible consequences for people with no resources. One single mother who is tired of having to come here at the beginning of every month to claim just 400 euros, bursts out crying: “I’m going berserk.”

Forty agents work here, handling the cases of 7,000 unemployed people, and yet they generally face their difficulties with solidarity and good humor. “It’s true that there’s a lot of verbal violence and familiarities, but it’s not that bad,” says one of the workers, who recalls that the situation was similar when she worked in Toulon, another coastal town located 60 kilometers from Marseille.

Like her, most of the Carré Gabriel agents are young. Colleagues with more experience rarely apply to come here. Some 43% of the people registered at the agency receive the RSA (the minimum unemployment assistance, just under 500 euros), 67% of them have little or no qualifications, and some have difficulties speaking French correctly and using the Internet. Not to mention problems with housing, health and transport, all obstacles to finding and keeping a job.

Fighting despair

The main task of the agents is often to remotivate people, given that there aren’t enough jobs on offer, especially locally. There are many openings for security positions, though, but only candidates with a car and a clean police record can apply, which is a lot to ask in this crime-ridden part of town. So most of the time people here are offered government-sponsored jobs. That is, when they show up.

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La Rouvière housing projects in Marseille (Vpe)

Of the six people employee Anthony Fouget was supposed to see this afternoon, only three came. If they don’t justify their absence, they will be struck off the list, even though the director assures us that every case is treated with sensitivity.

Sitting opposite Fouget is 56-year-old Abdehramane, a disabled electrician who has been receiving benefits for several years. He has lost all motivation. “I’ll never find anything again at my age,” he says. “I’ve given up. It’s been a year since I last went on the agency’s website.”

“I cannot listen to that,” Fouget says firmly but kindly. “You have all the required qualifications and experience. Stop trying to making excuses for yourself.” Abdehramane replies angrily, “You talk to me as if I was a child!” But in the end, he leaves with the promise that he will go to the senior club, where other unemployed people of his age gather.

The "hoodie factor"

In a small room on the ground floor, Frédéric Travers focuses on young people from rough neighborhoods. “Youngsters from the North quarter of Marseille are sometimes discriminated against, but I refuse to enter that sort of debate. Employers will always recruit only the people they want anyway,” he explains to those facing him. Instead, he tries to mitigate any potential discrimination by helping each candidate look “the most professional possible.”

During three months of intensive follow-up, Travers says he tries to “get rid of the hoodie aspect,” referencing the popular fashion of urban youth, and convince these youngsters that they won’t find a job without working at it. Almost half of those in his charge wind up with either a permanent or at least a six-month contract. The others get temporary or training contracts.

That day, he meets with four young men who have never been employed. “The goal is for you to be able to tell employers: ‘I’m not from the ghetto, I’m not black, I’m not Arab,’ but instead, ‘I'm a good professional,’” Travers tells them. Their first task is to define what they want to do exactly, then list the reasons why an employer would take them instead of somebody else. Not an easy assignment when your past seems to speak against you. Mohamed gets angry and leaves the room, just a few minutes after starting a questionnaire entitled, “Knowing yourself to show your worth,” which he had difficulty completing.

With the other three, Travers works on how they should introduce themselves, how to write a résumé and fill out applications. But despite his efforts, the reality of the neighborhood sometimes catches up with him. Last year, one of the young men he counseled was shot nine times with a Kalashnikov rifle. He also remembers how he helped a young girl abandon prostitution by helping her find a job. “We all know that there’s a lot of delinquency, but we don’t talk too much about it. That’s not something they’re proud of,” he explains.

At Carré Gabriel, there are occasionally stories of triumph and optimism. There is, for example, Vincent, who graduated from the Mines ParisTech school, and came here to register between two contracts. “SFR a cellphone operator is supposed to offer me a permanent contract for 2,500 euros a month,” Vincent says proudly. “Of course, I was tempted to go into drug trafficking, because these guys earn 500 euros a day. But I chose to study because there were good prospects. A lot of my friends are in this same position.”

As soon as he signs his contract, he will leave behind his parents’ home and the ghetto. “It’s true that people like Vincent are few here,” admits Clotilde, the agent who handled his case, “but that’s what I say to colleagues who feel down: We must keep in mind that most of the people we receive here are those who can’t get by.”

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