Despite having the highest welfare spending in the EU, France's meritocratic approach to social mobility has faltered. Children of blue collar workers have a 10 percent chance of landing white collar jobs, and according to an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, it's harder for young French immigrants to move up the social ladder than anyone else. While the state pays for education, healthcare and unemployment benefits, it has failed to foster equal economic opportunity to tackle its broken integration system. But in neglected French suburbs, grassroots organizations are picking up the slack and proactively working towards a more equitable society.
After graduating high school, Alicia K'bidi cleaned dishes with her father in a restaurant. Although her parents are uneducated immigrants, she earned the grades to go to college. Alicia's parents encouraged her, but she didn't think she would fit in. "None of my classmates went to college. I didn't even know which schools had a good reputation. In France, it's not career counselors who guide students but their environment," she told VICE Impact .
Feeling hopeless, she entered an equal opportunity program run by Passeport Avenir, an association launched in 2005 that guides young people from deprived backgrounds through school, higher education and their professional life.
The association has formed partnerships with reputed companies that provide experienced volunteer tutors. As of today, 1,500 executive volunteers from 36 companies like Accenture, Orange, Microsoft or Air France mentor young people who need help. Passeport Avenir emphasizes social and professional skills that regular schools fail to provide, such as networking, self-confidence and cultural capital. 20,000 students have been mentored since the creation of the association – 6,000 of them per year.
K'bidi took part in workshops alongside high-school graduates with similar backgrounds. That's when she realized that insufficient information in low-income families about higher education is why the system remains unequal.
"I was relieved to see people like me from the suburbs interested in going to business school,' K'bidi admitted. She was assigned a coach to go over the various degrees she could pursue. She is now enrolled in a Master's program at ESSEC - one of France's most prestigious business schools.
"They gave me a much better idea of how to apply my skills. Or even make me realize I had skills."
Quentin Gérard was raised in an old mining town by blue collar parents. After finishing a vocational high school degree, he was accepted into a mediocre business school. When he found out he had to do an internship to complete his degree, he had no idea what next steps he would have to take. When he realized his lack of exposure to the business world was his biggest handicap, he joined Passeport Avenir.
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"My mentor told me there were internship opportunities at France 24 [France's state-run English news network], but I had never applied for one," he said. "He trained me for the job during one-on-one mentoring sessions, but I also needed help writing a resume and a cover letter. I know these things seem obvious to some but they were challenging to me.''
Olga Abdala faced similar challenges. Raised in Africa, she moved to France to pursue a vocational degree in a small countryside town. When she graduated, she was told to network her way through.
"Growing up in Congo I never had a chance to develop social and networking skills. I didn't think I had anything of value to add to a conversation with an executive," she said. Her tutor scheduled meetings with professionals in various industries, pushing her to ask questions and keep the conversation going. "I realized many of them were interested in my background and were sensitive to my curiosity toward their line of work. They gave me a much better idea of how to apply my skills. Or even make me realize I had skills."
Abdala discovered new fields like strategy consulting, and today she works at Wavestone as a digital transformation advisor.
Ines Seddiki became concerned with social inequality when she was accepted into business school, and wanted to focus on creating favorable learning and cultural environments inside poor and immigrant communities. So she founded Ghett'up.
Ghett'up offers cultural activities and in-person or Skype workshops to discuss current affairs, art, culture and history with kids.
"These kids are a lot more confident when these events take place where they live."
"We develop their civic awareness and social capital. We want these kids to discuss issues and matters that are never addressed at home because their parents don't speak the language or aren't educated enough," Seddiki told VICE Impact. "There is an incredible talent pool in the suburbs, but one is helping each other.'
Seddiki got the idea for Ghett'up during an internship in New York. "I lived in Harlem and I noticed that certain communities that resemble the ones I come from have their own identity, solidarity mechanisms," he said. In New York, she met associations like Global Potential – an initiative that sends kids from the Bronx on humanitarian trips – that inspired her to create something similar back home in France.
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Inspired by networking events and symposia taking place in city-centers, Ines decided to host similar events through her projects. Her association invites renowned panelists to give talks on a variety of issues.
"We invite journalists, engineers, politicians, artists, and business leaders. The fact they come to us instead of the other way around sends a strong signal," she said. "These events attract young people from various suburbs who network over drinks when the talks are over. We've had people make new connections; others meet business patterns, many of them found internships, or mentors, or even new friends. These kids are a lot more confident when these events take place where they live."
AB sa'ider shares similar guiding principles. The association finds the challenges facing working-class and immigrant communities are rooted in early educational inequality.
"We don't want to replace public services, but instead reinforce the social fabric in our communities," AB founder Mehdi Bouteghmes told VICE Impact. "We want to promote local activism. We don't want to just be a local association that raises awareness. We oversee action. We want to go beyond school results. We want to connect young kids from the suburbs with art and culture and other environments that they aren't exposed to. That's what will make a difference."
To tackle the problem of children dropping out of school early, AB hosts weekly after-school homework support sessions. Thanks to subsidies from a handful of suburban cities such as Aubervilliers and La Courneuve, teachers take care of students with dropout problems, giving them the attention they desperately need. These after-school programs also include activities such as gardening, sightseeing or sculpting.
"The French historical narrative overlooks the contributions made by immigrants," Bouteghmes said. "We have Chinese-born children who had no idea their ancestors and families fought for France during both World Wars."
France's integration system is largely seen as ill-equipped to prepare young people from underprivileged socio-economic backgrounds for a brighter future. If the state keeps its head in the sand, it will continue to nourish anti-elite sentiment.These associations show that social inclusion, equal economic opportunity, and diversity in the workplace can and must be addressed by means other than redistribution and welfare spending.