Michele Sevrette

PARIS (WOMENSENEWS)–In March 1999, when a large Levi’s factory closed its doors in La Basee in the north of France, 540 people, mostly women, suddenly found themselves without jobs.

Many had been working in the factory as seamstresses for more than 20 years. They quickly learned that their skills were not needed in today’s market. The company offeredthem job-placement services, but they say theadvisors there told them that at 40 or 50, theywere too old to train for another field.

Two years later, only about 85 of them had found work, mostly in other factories. Two had committed suicide, a handful had gotten divorced and many were suffering severe depression.

“I have no morale. I’m in a hole, an impasse, a dead end,” wrote one former worker a year after the closing. “But there must be a way out.”

This way out is exactly what a group of recently unified French organizations hopes to help women find. Called Femmes en Reseau (Networking Women), the umbrella group is composed of six French associations whose goal is to encourage women who have fallen on hard times.

The women who were laid off by Levi’s are among them. So are recent immigrants and homemakers who have been thrust into breadwinning as a result of divorce or a husband’s death. Together, the groups help hundreds of women a year. Networking Women is also part of an international organization of the same name that links more than 30 similar groups worldwide.

The groups are backed by Les Penelopes, a Paris-based organization that promotes and diffuses information about women’s rights issues and a mix of public and private grants. The key aim is to steer women back into stable employment, often by identifying skills that the women already possess and that they might not initially think would be valued outside the home.

At a recent presentation at the International Women’s Film Festival in Creteil, France, Joelle Palmieri, a co-founder of Les Penelopes, said that the new association’s goal is to “promote economic solidarity and employment alternatives” so that “women from depressed neighborhoods can access work.”

Weaving Confidence

The first challenge for the former Levi’s workers was to rebuild confidence. In the summer of 2000, 25 of the women joined a two-month writing workshop offered by dramatist Bruno Lajara, who was interested in creating a play about their experiences. By the following year, they had created an association and written a book of vignettes about their experiences called “Les Mains Bleues” (Blue Hands). “It was a way to prove that we could do other things,” said one of the former workers, Michele Sevrette, 51, in an interview with Women’s eNews.

It was also a way for the women to build confidence and to learn that despite their long tenure at Levi’s, they did indeed have other skills.

Another of the groups takes a similar approach, working on re-familiarizing women with the working world by training them and connecting them with local businesses.

Djamila Maini

“It’s not easy to get started again,” said Djamila Maini, founder and president of Femmes Actives (Active Women) who was inspired to create the group partly because of her mother’s experience. An Algerian immigrant, she couldn’t find a job because she was illiterate and had few skills. “You need some time to adapt yourself and our organization is there for that.”

The group serves women in the poor suburbs of Paris, where one in five of the residents are immigrants, most from North and sub-Saharan Africa. The unemployment rate hovers at around 25 percent, double the national average.

Fariza Ben Chabane is an example of a woman whose life has changed significantly since she became involved in Active Women. Born in Algeria, she raised four daughters in a Paris suburb. When they were grown, she asked herself what she would do in an empty house. She enrolled in the group’s first training session in 1994, and she now teaches other women how to knit using traditional machines.

“I can now manage on my own,” she says in a profile on the group’s Web site. She insists that her husband and daughters appreciate the work she does. “I’m proud of myself!”

Femmes Actives’ strategy is to start with what the women already know, such as cooking, sewing or traditional handicrafts. “At first they say they know nothing,” said Nacera Sadaoui, who leads some of the group’s workshops. “But little by little, they begin to become aware of their skills.” In other words, they learn that traditional domestic skills can be translated into the modern market–for example, sewing can become tailoring; authentic recipes can be used in a catering service and women-made rugs can be sold at a healthy profit.

The group offers two six-month training sessions, called “motivation sessions,” per year, with 15 participants each. The women take courses in literacy, language skills and computers, as well as in a chosen field of work in partnership with local businesses. “Now, there’s no way I could go back to domestic life!” says Ben Chabane.

Another innovative project, called Declic (Click), uses radio as a tool to teach people–especially girls or young women who have dropped out of school–communications skills, through training in interviewing and reporting; as well as workshops in singing, music and rap.

The project was founded by Florence Themia, who herself grew up in La Cite, housing projects outside Paris. Eight years ago, Themia had trouble finding work in the field, despite 10 years of experience a sound technician for a radio production company. “It’s a very masculine profession and no one would hire me, partly because I’m a woman, partly because I’m a women of color,” she said. “Eventually I was forced to create my own job.”

In 1996, she and two friends started offering workshops in La Cite where they live, in St. Denis outside of Paris, and soon they landed contracts to teach singing and radio skills to special education students from local schools. It wasn’t long before they could fund a studio and begin helping young people produce their own radio program, which runs once a month on a Paris station.

At Declic, Themia hired four full-time employees to help run the workshops, which serve over 200 people a year, funded through public grants. Those who attend the workshops often end up going into the field, including a young woman from La Cite who entered the program at 12 years old and now works full-time as a reporter and announcer for a radio station in central France.

Often the benefits are more subtle, however: “Many of the young people who get jobs come back and tell us that it’s partly because of us that they succeeded,” says Themia. The program “instills the desire to improve and to take stock of their own skills.”

Back on Their Feet, Looking Forward

At Femmes Actives, the group decided to take the most successful component of the training sessions–cooking–and make a business out of it. It is now a catering service with eight full-time employees from diverse places–Martinique, Vietnam, Morocco and Algeria–who bring their own traditions and recipes to the endeavor.

For Les Mains Bleues, the writing workshop that got a handful of women back on their feet was just a beginning. The subsequent book garnered national attention, and Bruno Lajara, the dramatist who first proposed the workshop idea, produced a play called “501 Blues” based on the women’s experiences. He decided to use five of the former Levi’s workers instead of trained actresses in the starring roles. The play toured the country in 2001 and 2002 and still makes occasional appearances. Lajara is considering producing another play with the same actresses.

But the newfound writers and actresses are not satisfied with only a handful of success stories. They are meeting with local politicians and associations to seek funding to help realized their dream: to open a small cafe that would host job workshops, cultural events and, above all, a place to connect.

“We want to do something for each other, for our fellow alumni from Levi’s,” said Sevrette, one of the former workers. She currently has a short-term contact with a local engine factory and spends much of her free time educating people about the plight of the Levi’s women. “None of us want to be forgotten.”

Kimberly Conniff Taber is an editor at the International Herald Tribune and a freelance writer based in Paris.

For more information:

Les Mains Bleues
(in French):

Les Penelopes
(in French, English and Spanish):

Femmes Actives
(in French):