A French Muslim finds feng shui in Guangzhou Globalist

By Roger Cohen – 14 décembre 2005

Rachid Ech Chetouani, a young Frenchman, was in Guangzhou, China, earlier this year looking to make a buck.

During a three-week trip, he prospected for goods his newly established import-export company might trade: cellphone memory cards, portable video game players, automatic bill-counting machines for banks. When he got back, he tried to sell some of the merchandise on eBay.

Chetouani, 27, the son of a Moroccan laborer who came to France in 1970, found China overwhelming. « It’s seething, it never stops, it’s full of pitiless people emerging from hard times, » he said. « There are no cafes! They don’t have time for that. Everyone’s out to make it. » So is Chetouani, who has been battling the odds as an Arab raised in a public housing project in a Parisian suburb. The projects are routinely described as grim or ravaged, especially since violence erupted in them last month. Palm Beach they’re not. Nor, however, are they remotely comparable to the slums of Lagos or Sao Paulo.

The problem’s not the boxy architecture or elevators that don’t work. It’s the invisible barriers the quotidian racism and job- quashing economy that keep smart young men like Chetouani on the outside looking in; the new Muslim French gazing through glass walls at the grumbling Gauls with the good jobs.

I met Chetouani at the Cafe des 4 Routes, an establishment with a French name and clients of North African descent with un-French names. He’s one of myriad clever young European Muslims caught between two cultures, believers in God living in increasingly atheistic societies, their intelligence channeled by frustration into a culture of alienation.

« I know their history from the Capetian kings to the Fifth Republic, » he said, reeling off the name of the medieval French dynasty as if it were as familiar to him as the French soccer midfielder Zinedine Zidane. « And I’ve learned that frankness is not French; hypocrisy is. » He continued: « I’m as French as my father Mohammed was Moroccan. I write French, not Arabic. Yet they still see us as colonial natives in need of assimilation. If drinking wine and eating pork is assimilation, count me out. I am what I am: a French Arab Muslim. Do you want me? » The answer to that question is unclear to Chetouani. When he was trying to set up his company, ECHM Import, earlier this year, he went to French banks, including Societe Generale and Credit Lyonnais, to open an account. They said no. He was too young, or his plan too risky, or something.

Chetouani was not asking the banks for credit, merely for an account. He ended up having to go to a branch of Credit du Maroc in Paris, a Moroccan bank where his father knew the manager.

After 27 years in France, where he was born and educated, this young man had to resort to an old Moroccan connection to try to get his career going. Yet his aim in founding the company was, in effect, to go legal.

The inhabitants of many French public housing projects, like those in Asnieres, exist in a parallel economy. The country’s chronic unemployment problem caused by overprotected jobs, overgenerous unemployment benefits and overregulated work hours is exacerbated for people with names likeChetouani.

Nobody is rushing to give them work, especially if they get too much of an education to want to labor at Renault or in construction.

Drug trafficking is one growth industry in the projects. But anything is up for sale. For years, Chetouaniplaced orders for cellphones, fake Vuitton bags, counterfeit Gucci and sham Prada with acquaintances going to Thailand or Dubai to buy them on the cheap.

A cool cellphone bought for 50 in Bangkok might go for 150 in Asnieres. « That’s 3,000 profit on 30 phones, » Chetouani noted.

It was a living, or something like one. In 1999, when the Nike Air Max model was particularly hot in France, he himself went to Chicago to buy dozens of pairs. Lake Michigan « an ocean! » sent him into rhapsodies.

A few years later, after a brush with the law for stealing a scooter that turned out to have been stolen already (he was given a six-month suspended sentence), Chetouani crossed the Atlantic again to try his luck in Montreal. He had several jobs in a year: volleyball coach, movie lighting technician, worker in a maple- syrup factory.

« The difference in North America is that it’s competence that counts, » he said. « Nobody’s interested in where you came from as long as you can bring them money. Here, the system is based more on knowing the right people. » It’s a system familiar to Chetouani, who says he feels French when he’s overseas but not otherwise. He came back because of this familiarity and to marry a Moroccan-French woman, Samira, he had met on vacation in Morocco. She uses the name Victoria when working as a telephone saleswoman because an Arab name tends to be a handicap.

But something of the spirit of the Americas stayed with Chetouani, who’s heading back to Guangzhou early next year to try to get his business going. « I’m for a society of winners, » he said. « France doesn’t like winners. When you make it, you hide it. One question nobody seems able to answer is: If the French economic model is so great, how come nobody copies it? » He sees the country as a « Ferrari running on diesel fuel, » held back by regulations and prejudice. Certainly there’s entrepreneurial talent in the suburbs should France find a way to unleash it.

But if Chetouani ever hires anyone for ECHM Import, he knows the taxes could be crippling. If he makes much of his Islamic faith, which has become more important to him, he fears arousing suspicion.

« Suppose someone who trained at a camp in Afghanistan calls me to buy my goods, » he said. « I might disappear into a prison as some of my friends have. »


Share →