Can you give us a brief view of your arrival in France with your parents at the age of 10, your feelings as a child in a new environment, settling down, going through your education, your first job…
Ali Mohammad: “We arrived in Dreux along with the whole family in 1985, right in the middle of a severe and snowy winter. We were one of the very first Pakistani families in this town, where very few people even knew where Pakistan was or could locate the country on a map! My father worked in the area of Sentier in Paris, as did a great number of Pakistanis.
At the age of nine and a half years, I was admitted in preparatory class one, where I was three to four years older than my classmates and felt that I had to do better than them. Thanks to my teacher’s input, help and personal attention from which I greatly benefitted, I was soon able to catch up. Her patience and goodwill carried me through and I could apply myself and develop my aptitude in the language of the great Moliere! Thus, right from the age of 11 years, I mastered the rudiments of French and began to discover its richness and subtleties.
In 1987, my father bought a house in Les Mureaux, a township with a complex sociological backdrop and this area thence became my new playground. My scholarly aptitudes started taking shape without hindrance as I went through high school and then on to college. Here, I joined the queue for economics and obtained my baccalaureate with merit.
My professor of economics having transferred his passion to me, I decided to opt for Economic Sciences at the University of Cergy Pontoise, where I obtained a Masters degree in Finance and a Postgraduate degree from University of Paris X.
Whether to finance my studies or to consolidate a working capital for my other activities parallel to the pursuit of my studies, I necessarily had to develop businesses in various spheres such as transport or trade. As soon as I was a Postgraduate, I joined a company that specialised in management and business consultancy. The company’s main aim was to help other companies in management skills and help them develop in the international field. I joined a company that specialised in systems of communications and security. This company’s clientele consisted of the big names in Building and Public Construction.”
At what age, and why, did you enter the world of politics?
AM: “From a very young age, I had this great urge to make things move and to immerse myself in activities that were both associated with and representative of the public. I was elected as a delegate at both school and college to represent the pupils before the professors and the administration and was an active member of the student body. Involvement in service to others always attracted me greatly. I sincerely and genuinely believe that in general, politics and public action can change things for the better and bring a better future to the people concerned.
My political persuasion is social democracy — thus, while deeply concerned with the market economy, I believe at the same time that this market economy needs to be regulated by the intervention and will of peoples’ power — the invisible hand of Adam Smith was not always lucky for one and all!
In 2001 at the age of 25, when I was still studying, I was elected as the Municipal Councillor of the town of Les Mureaux, a township of 33,000 inhabitants, situated 35 kilometres from Paris. This town with its complex sociology was scarred by the re-industrialisation of France following the Second World War. I was involved in looking after the complex problems of employment. Then in 2008, I was elected Deputy Mayor in charge of economic development, business, education and apprenticeship. Les Mureaux and the territory around it are earmarked by Aerospatiale (for the assembly at the main stage of the Ariane rocket), and the Automobile industry (Renault and Peugeot factories). Making this region attractive for industries to invest in and establish themselves, help the industries grow, create future subsidiaries for the territory (for example the development of long term strategies), is the core aim and objective of my office. To fully install and follow the developments in conjunction with other public entities and departments and regions, in order to get employment for those who have been left behind on the way without work, to maximise their opportunities of finding jobs again — all this constitutes the very heart of my public service. It is purely a question of putting one’s heart and soul in it. And, at the same time, it requires strategic vision, while maintaining a close relationship with the people.”
Turning to Pakistanis in France, how many Pakistanis are there in France at present? What sort of jobs do they hold?
AM: “At the end of the nineties and the beginning of 2000, Pakistani immigrants in France amounted to between 60,000 to 80,000; they were mainly from the Punjab and Kashmir and they worked as labourers, held jobs in public works and had ethnic businesses. These Pakistanis play a crucial role in bolstering Pakistan’s economy via substantial forex remittances.
However, a second generation has started to come up — more educated and better qualified — who aspire to and obtain more responsible positions, such as becoming engineers or businessmen. The French systems are vastly different to the Anglo-Saxon systems which immigrants from South East Asia are familiar with. In France, the notion of community corresponds to the national level. While in the UK, it would be very easy to communicate with the communities, to differentiate them, to have spokespersons to interface with each one of them; in France, this would not be possible at all.
For example, in the UK if a candidate presents him or herself for election as a Mayor or Deputy, one could openly say without embarrassment that he or she belongs to a certain community. In France, the golden rule is being a citizen, a lay person, a part of the society, and this dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when it was primarily an anti-clerical struggle against the Church. There is a strong secular system in France.
Each one of us nurtures the dream of returning to our own country of origin for ever, but there are statistics that prove otherwise: less than 2% succeed and it is our duty to think about our future generations.
Since the election of President Sarkozy, immigration policies have been changed drastically. Firstly, a tough line is taken on those who are clandestine and secondly the immigration policy is to choose those whom the country needs. A certain fluency in the language, certain knowledge of the history and culture of France are henceforth immigration pre-requisites as well as certain financial investment capability — all these points have to be primarily considered.”
Have you always remained in touch with your family and friends in Pakistan and do you follow the events in your country of origin? How do you help Pakistan’s poor?
AM: “I still have quite a lot of family in Pakistan, especially in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, where every year, I spend a few days. Television channels also keep me well informed of the latest events back home, thanks to the satellite reception. On the other hand, for the last 24 years, I have not been able to celebrate Eid in Pakistan, but have from a distance financially supported those in need and helped them enjoy festive occasions with their families.
Besides this, at the time of the 2005 earthquake disaster, I set up a fund to raise money from my network of friends and colleagues for the Red Cross, as well as collecting and forwarding emergency equipment (tents, sleeping bags, generators) for those who were without shelter. I do not support any particular charitable organisation as such, but make a more targeted effort for deserving individuals, for example students who do not have sufficient means to continue their studies.”
You are continuing your studies… What is your goal?
AM: “In France, the system of higher education is unique. Universities and higher education institutes are run parallel to each other and a large number of the public sector elite or private individuals come from these higher education institutes. This is something I was unaware of when I graduated and got my baccalaureate.
That’s why, at the age of 32, I seized the opportunity of making a dream come true and decided to give my career a great impetus. Indeed, in 2009, I have been admitted to the Postgraduate course of ENA, as well as in Science Po, which has produced several presidents of the French Republic (Chirac) as well as prime ministers. It has all to do with a dream, an aspiration, but it is also vital for progress in my professional and political life.”
What advice can you give to the young Pakistanis who aspire to settle in Europe?
AM: “In order to succeed, it is vital to fully understand the country’s systems — the language, the history, the culture — all have to be assimilated. You don’t have to negate or forget one culture in order to accept another, but one has to be sufficiently flexible to build a bridge between the two, to take the best of both — and that becomes the source of our spiritual wealth! For this very reason, I would like to ask Pakistan’s second generation to get into social and political activities. They are Pakistani-French, speak the language, and understand cultural subtleties. Thus, they can become excellent representatives and create links with the decision making strata.
Pakistan has a particular image in France. Let’s speak of the positive points. The language: Urdu or Hindi. The history: the Mughals. The writers and thinkers: Mohammed Iqbal. The entertainment industry, the gastronomy… but paradoxically, it is India which, thanks to the presence of Pakistanis in France, pockets all the advantages and positive points, when it comes to image! Here is an example: over 90% of the Pakistani restaurants in France put up sign boards on their shop front: Indian Restaurant or in the best of cases, ‘Indo-Pakistani’, just to attract the client. Gastronomy, an essential part of our culture is handed over to others, who derive a host of advantages from it! And that’s the reason that in France one says ‘Let’s go for an Indian (meal)’, while most of the time they go to a Pakistani restaurant.
Speaking of the negative points — it is Pakistan that frightens them and India that gently attracts them. Terrorism, portrayed by the local media, as almost systematically coming from Pakistani sources, and the country is perceived as the backdrop of Al Qaeda.
In my opinion, Pakistan’s image must necessarily be built over long-term and not sacrificed at the altar of short-term commercial gains. Pakistan has its own culture, history, language, and such singular features must necessarily be defended.
All the people of Pakistani origin in France, wherever they are placed in this social hierarchy, must essentially consider themselves as ‘Ambassadors of Pakistan’.”