Shades of grey keep Strasbourg’s struggling citizens afloat

On the French city’s housing estates, many scrape by in the parallel cash economy for goods and odd jobs

The scene is the Cité du Marais, at Schiltigheim, a problem estate between the canal that runs down towards Germany and the tramline to the centre of Strasbourg, in eastern France. Two men climb out of a car, a large fellow with loads of rings on his fingers and a smaller figure wearing an oversized jacket. They shake hands with bystanders and inquire after the “family”, then get down to business, revealing a stock of T-shirts and shorts in their boot. It is all big-name brands – Yves Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana and such.

The prices are low, €25 ($33) per garment, maybe 10 times less than in the shops. A youth asks: “Is this the real thing?” “Of course,” the big man replies. “Look at the quality. There’s a Gypsy on the market who sells the same stuff for €5 more!”

We spotted the pair a few hours later in another Strasbourg neighbourhood, selling the same wares. Why did they leave, we asked. “Too many lardus [cops],” they explain.

In the poor districts of the city, street trading is common. Others do home haircuts, drive unlicensed cabs, sell secondhand scooters and so on. People will do anything even if it is not quite legal, but stop short of dealing drugs.

This parallel economy, never mentioned in the statistics, enables many residents of deprived neighbourhoods to get by. Amazingly no proper research has been done to put figures on this trade. “It is very difficult to quantify the grey economy, but it is very widespread. The poorer an estate, the stronger its hold. Sometimes it is almost vital,” says sociologist Didier Lapeyronnie. “Residents say that without this business they could not survive.” In the neighbourhood he studied in western France none of the women bought their clothes in shops.

People at the Cité du Marais reckon to make between €200 and €400 ($270 to $540) a month on the side. Such apparently small amounts make a big difference. Setting aside the many reports on poverty in France’s banlieue estates, we decided the local pizzeria was probably the most accurate indication of the economic climate. The proprietor has a ledger that details the debts of his regular customers. The various welfare payments, including unemployment benefit and revenu de solidarité active [restricted to jobseekers not entitled to other benefits] only come through on the fifth of the month. So debts must wait till then. The estate’s whole economy is based on credit.

But little extras –”au black” in common parlance – can be added to welfare benefits and the odd hour or two of registered work to bring total earnings up to nearly €1,000 ($1,350), equivalent to the minimum wage. Most of the people who scrape by thanks to odd jobs on the side do not really see them as illegal. They refer to such work as “halal”, in contrast to dealing which is clearly “haram” (forbidden).

At any mention of “petit business” on the estate, the first person who springs to mind is Zitoun, 43, with his toothless grin and baggy tracksuit. He does a bit of everything, repairing cars and two-wheelers, renovating flats, emptying cellars … anything that brings in some ready cash.

Nor is he the only one. Aissa, 28, has worked as a cook in a Tex-Mex joint, as a mobile hairdresser, a street vendor, house-painter and even croupier at a clandestine poker club. Leila, 31, coaches local schoolkids in French and maths, earning €8 an hour to pay her way through law school.

Mehdi, 28, does “car mechanics”: €20 for an oil change, €50 for big jobs. He also charges €20 to repair a faulty PC, having trained as an IT technician after he was laid off by General Motors in 2008. Sami, 24, a gentle giant of a man, did removals and worked as a bouncer in local nightclubs to top up a part-time work-experience scheme which earned him €630 a month. But work is increasingly scarce since qualifications started to be required for work in security.

Then there is Majid and his Clio, which for a while served as minicab for local residents. For a few euros he would fetch an order from the nearest McDonald’s. For €10 he would take you to the other end of town, the supermarket or to see the family. For double that amount clubbers could come home safely in the early hours. Majid spent €5 on petrol and pocketed the rest, with up to €250 clear profit a month. “For that I could eat without dipping into my RSA [benefit],” he explains. But an accident put an end to all that, as he could not afford to repair the car.

Many of them do not see themselves ever finding a steady job. They talk about leaving school too early, having too many blots on their police record, too many useless training certificates. Some even suggest that working on the side is better than paying fines deducted at source from regular wages.

But in many cases no money even changes hands. Nor is there anything in writing. This form of exchange is wholly invisible to anyone not living on the estate. It is as if the apparently languid economic life of the neighbourhood was really bubbling away under the surface. “I do some gardening for someone and in exchange he does my food shopping,” Zitoun explains. “It also enables me to pay my debts. I repaint the flat of someone I owe money to and in exchange he wipes my slate clean.”

This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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