Friday, May 22, 2009

WSJ: In France, Immigrant Offspring Return to Ancestral Homelands

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting report on job discrimination, racism and emigration in France.

PARIS -- Nawal El Kahlaoui grew up near Paris as the daughter of a mechanic who left Morocco to seek a better life in France. But after finishing her university studies here, Ms. Kahlaoui moved back to Morocco to find work.

"I love Morocco, as the country gave me a chance," says the 35-year-old retail consultant in Casablanca. "It's a land of opportunity."

A growing number of well-educated French people of immigrant backgrounds are returning to their parents' homelands. There are no official figures on the number of "returnees," and government officials, scholars and employment agencies say the number is small. Still, this gradual U-turn reflects a relative decline in the desirability of life in parts of Europe, compared with some developing countries.

Mass immigration to France started in the 1960s, as the economy grew strongly, creating jobs. In addition to migrants from southern Europe, workers came from France's former colonies, in particular Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

As France's economy slowed in subsequent decades, however, unemployment rose, and hasn't dipped below 7% for the past quarter of a century. In recent years, the jobless rate for immigrants has been around twice that of non-immigrants. Now that France is in recession, the first jobs to go are often those filled by minorities.

Most of the French "returnees" are of Moroccan background, according to people who have studied the phenomenon, though there is also a trickle to other former French colonies, such as Algeria and Vietnam. In 2002, Rabat set up a "Ministry for the Overseas Moroccan Community," to encourage émigrés to return and invest their skills in their native land.

Morocco is also becoming more open and prosperous. Overhauls under King Mohammad VI, who ascended to the throne in 1999, have improved freedom of expression and women's rights. In addition, the country has formed free-trade agreements with the U.S. and the European Union. The economy expanded at an average of more than 4% from 2000 to 2008, and even this year is expected to post growth higher than that. While a large number of rural poor keep Morocco relatively low in international measures of economic prosperity, city life can be good for better-off residents.

Life can be better than in France. Surveys show that in France, applicants for a job have around a third the chance of getting a reply if their name sounds Arab or African as they do with a more traditional French name.

But no one knows the exact extent of inequality: The French Republic's doctrine that everyone is equal has so far ruled out the collection of statistics on race and religion. As a result, unlike in the U.S., there are no detailed data on how many French people are black, Arab or Asian -- and how they fare in education and work.

Opponents say that such an ethnic census would divide society by validating the existence of groups based on race and religion.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, acknowledging the problem, said before his 2007 election that he wanted better ways to measure discrimination, and in December he appointed a commissioner for diversity. Algerian-born Yazid Sabeg recently published a report in which he recommended that people be allowed to identify -- but not in a mandatory way -- which ethnic group they belong to on official documents.

"We need to measure the negative situation that is the result of different appearances," Mr. Sabeg said in a recent interview in his office on Paris's Left Bank. "It's very important for France to get out of its fantasy that there is no discrimination."

A French education is highly valued in former colonies, and salaries are good relative to the cost of living.

In Morocco, former émigrés are very welcome. Big European companies have been actively recruiting French-educated staff for their units there over the past three or four years, says Jamal Belahrach, president of the North African operations of job agency Manpower. The recruits find they can rise faster in their careers than they would have in France -- and are surprised to find a country different from the one their parents left. "There's a generation who didn't see Morocco in the past, and now sees the modern Morocco," he says.

Barka Biye's parents had moved to France from Morocco when she was just two months old. Ms. Biye graduated in law from the University of Paris, and then worked for several years in insurance. In 2007, she decided to look for a job in Morocco. She found one with a French insurance company in Casablanca in just two weeks.

"I thought I could play my part in the evolution of a country going through big changes," she says. "Morocco is expanding fast, and the companies who set up there want managers educated in Europe and at the same time capable of understanding the country's culture."

When Ms. El Kahlaoui was job-hunting in the late 1990s, she had trouble finding an interesting job, even though she held an undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Paris and another in marketing from ESSEC, an elite business school.

When she asked a university careers adviser why she was having so much trouble, the woman gave her some advice: "She told me I had to change my name and address," says Ms. El Kahlaoui. The problem: Her name and address told potential employers she was from a typical North African immigrant background.

In Casablanca, Ms. El Kahlaoui started off working for French pharmaceuticals company Pierre Fabre and then German cosmetics group Beiersdorf before joining a small retail consultancy.

She says she's happy in Morocco, but being there makes her feel very French. "I will come back ," she says, "but only when the system can generally accept people like me.

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