France’s suburbs are suffering from economic stagnation, poor housing, unemployment and exclusion. Since the beginning of the 1960s, a succession of failed integration policies has led to segregated immigrant communities which are remote and isolated. A deficient educational system has created a generation of poorly educated youth—compared with 15 percent nationally, 25 percent fall below a high school education. However, education alone is not sufficient to lower the unemployment rate. Recent studies have shown that in our competitive job market, family name and address are factors for employment discrimination, regardless of education. It’s not surprising that many young adults from impoverished suburban areas imagine attaining success through professional sports or the music and entertainment business.
The Mantois, the area surrounding the city of Mantes-La-Jolie, is a case in point. Fifty kilometres west of Paris, the area grew with the rapid expansion of industry after World War II. The Val Fourré, one of the low cost housing neighbourhoods with more than 25,000 inhabitants, was built during the late 1950s and 1960s in conjunction with the rise of the local automobile industry. Unfortunately most of the industrial base was restructured in the 1980s, leading to significant job loss in the community. One early study of the Val Fourré showed that 56 percent of the population was living on minimum welfare payments. The Mantois region is emblematic of community systems that combine a large underclass of immigrant and unemployed populations, a sluggish economic environment (with few local jobs, distant job markets, poor public transportation and a generally low level of job qualification), and a feeble local tax base which hinders the region’s ability to actively address its problems.
Two national level programs, “Management Boutiques” and “Incubators” exist specifically to educate and support future entrepreneurs. However, these programs have not been used in the suburbs. Designed as consulting firms, they are not an adequate response to the needs of the communities. Lacking diversity among their staff, they have difficulty gaining credibility and trust in France’s suburbs. Finally, these programs only guide entrepreneurs for 2 years, which is often the point at which they need the most help to begin scaling from a pilot to a successful enterprise. The French government has recently launched a prize called Talents des Cites to reward entrepreneurship in lower income neighborhoods, but unfortunately, it is perceived to be more of a communication and marketing tool than a viable economic development program.