RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Change is the message that a French entrepreneur is bringing to the troubled suburbs of Paris. Inspired by the election of Barack Obama, the young businessman came up with a new soft drink. He's calling it Obama Soda. He's hoping to give young people in some of the country's roughest housing projects a taste of the American dream. Eleanor Beardsley brings us this story from the working-class suburb of Paris called La Courneuve.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: La Courneuve is only five miles from the center of Paris, but it seems a different world from the glittering City of Light. In the drab housing projects, or cites as they are called here, rows of gray cinder apartment blocks dominate the landscape. It is here that 31-year-old Jean-Jacques Attisso has decided to base his advertising business. Attisso grew up in a nearby housing project, and like most young people here, his parents were immigrants from Africa. The energetic entrepreneur says one of the biggest problems in La Courneuve is the apathy and hopelessness among young people.
JEAN: There is like a gap between this area and Paris. And for me, it's really important to be here and to try to give a positive message.
BEARDSLEY: Attisso gives back to the community by mentoring young people in his spare time. He says Barack Obama has inspired young people like nobody else. That and the fact that one of his clients is a can manufacturer gave him the idea to create Obama Soda. The drink comes in a red and blue can with Mr. Obama's photo and the slogan "Yes We Can." It's the perfect tool to get young people to listen to his message, says Attisso, even if the success story is from another country.
ATTISSO: They know that Barack Obama is American. And here in France, the situation is a bit different. But still, if someone is able to do that in the biggest country of the world, I mean, why not? It could happen in other country.
BEARDSLEY: This afternoon, Attisso takes his energy drink and his motivational message to La Courneuve's youth center. After astonishing a few adolescents with his cans of Obama Soda, Attisso begins his spiel. He describes Mr. Obama as practically an orphan, a guy whose father left him and who was raised by his grandmother. But, Attisso says, Obama studied and kept going. He tells the boys, you, too, could do anything you want. You just have to work hard and set your mind to it. Nineteen-year-old Jean Marie Cyrelli says his father, like Mr. Obama's, was African. And he says young people in the French suburbs feel they have no future.
JEAN MARIE CYRELLI: (Through Translator) People don't believe in France anymore. They feel stuck out here in these ghettos in the suburbs. And the young people don't feel integrated with the rest of the country. It's an identity problem. They can't find their place in society, and they don't feel French.
BEARDSLEY: Unemployment in La Courneuve and other minority-populated suburban areas is nearly three times the national average. Residents say they face discrimination and exclusion. Just three years ago, this area and others like it across the country exploded in violence. Young men of African and North African background burned cars and fought with police in nearly three weeks of nightly rioting. Outside, in front of some small shops that include a halal butcher and a grocer advertising African specialties, Attisso stops some younger tweens on their way home from school. They all seem more optimistic than their older neighbors.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAN BEING OPENED)
MUHAMMED CHERKI: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: I love Obama cola. This is the first time I've tasted it, says 11-year-old Muhammed Cherki. Cherki says he's sure he could become president of France, but he'd rather be a chef or the mayor of Hollywood. When Attisso tells him that African-Americans couldn't even sit down in the front of a bus 50 years ago, Cherki replies that now Obama doesn't need the bus - he's got limousines. Fourteen-year-old Maria Tudjay and her friends said they love Obama Soda because it tastes like bubble gum, and the can is pretty because it's in the colors of the French flag.
MARIA TUDJAY: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Unidentified Boy: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: All he wants to do is bring the cops here, says one boy. We don't like him at all. Despite Obama Soda's success among these young people, Attisso says the cans are not yet on supermarket shelves. For now, he wants to use the drink to convince young people that a French version of the American dream is also possible. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in La Courneuve, France.
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