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In Paris’s Banlieues, New Recipe for Success Is Local

“We came from a place where there was injustice and a lack of opportunity,” Mr. Benamer, 36, recalled of his banlieue, Bondy. But there he was in the heart of tourist Paris, on a winter afternoon in 2007, with his mother pointing incredulously to truffle-and-foie-gras maki being rolled out to patrons at Eat Sushi, which since then has expanded into a chain of 38 restaurants across France.

“How did you manage to do all this?” she asked.

His answer was simple: he did it on his own.

“I was not going to let this feeling that we have no chance keep me closed inside the banlieue,” Mr. Benamer recalled recently.

For decades, the disadvantaged suburbs that ring Paris and other large French cities have been places of privation, plagued by discrimination and poverty. France has long vowed to improve the plight of the banlieue populations, often Muslim and primarily people with Arab or sub-Saharan African family roots in the French colonial past. Despite pledges by Nicolas Sarkozy when he was president to address economic and social inequality after a series of violent riots in 2005 and 2007, though, critics say little has changed.

That is why a new generation of people like Mr. Benamer are trying to turn the suburbs into incubators for entrepreneurs, who see using their own initiative as the only way up and out of the banlieues, which are home to an estimated 10 percent of France’s 63.7 million people.

Through persistent lobbying, banlieue entrepreneurs have been founding “angel” investment funds, persuading big French companies like AXA Insurance and BNP Paribas to contribute seed money that fuel start-ups ranging from trash removal to taxi fleets. It was one such fund that recently helped finance the national expansion of Mr. Benamer’s Eat Sushi chain.

No one can yet quantify the new businesses emerging from this movement, or measure its success. But the activity is occurring largely outside the sphere of the French state.

“If we wait for the government to do something, people will just remain stuck,” Mr. Benamer said. “If we want things to improve, we have to do it ourselves.”

As part of the self-help effort, banlieue-based organizations that promote ethnic diversity have been aggressive about placing minorities into mentoring and jobs programs at French companies that as little as a decade ago routinely rejected applicants with non-French names.

“Things are changing,” said Majid El Jarroudi, a consultant of Moroccan origin, who grew up in the Paris banlieue of Montreuil.

Mr. Jarroudi, 36, started his career operating a small restaurant. He founded an organization, Adive, to assist banlieue entrepreneurs after visiting the United States and marveling at how much easier it seemed for minorities to move ahead.

Attitudes have shifted slowly in France, he said, but these days, “there is a growing recognition that the banlieues should not be seen as a place to fear, but as a source of dynamism, full of people who are eager to work and to succeed.”

Mr. Benamer is a case in point. One of the youngest in a family of 10 children, with illiterate parents, he grew up in the gritty Bondy suburb, which was engulfed in the 2005 and 2007 riots, although he and his family avoided the trouble. After getting a vocational degree when he was 18, he started a small sandwich business with his younger brother, Yahia. Working 13-hour days, they were quickly selling more than 2,000 sandwiches a day to local colleges.

Soon, they set their sights on takeout sushi, a market in which Mr. Benamer saw greater potential. In 2006, the brothers co-founded Eat Sushi, with a flagship outlet in the heart of Paris. Last year, an angel investment fund, Citizen Capital, took a 30 percent stake, with plans to double by 2015 the number of stores and sales that last year topped 20 million euros (about $26 million).

Today, Eat Sushi employs 550 people in cities and banlieues around France in a work force, including managers, with origins in 30 different countries.

Stefania Rousselle contributed reporting.

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