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French Firm Labors to Help Immigrants

Lisa Bryant

Immigrants do not always have an easy time finding work when they first arrive in the West. Many face daunting language and education barriers in their adopted country, not to mention racism. But in the small, eastern French town of Lure, one female entrepreneur has made it her mission to hire foreign immigrant women to work in her knitwear factory, which makes luxury goods for some of the world's top fashion designers.

It is a frigid winter's morning in France's hilly, Haute-Saone region, where just about everything outside appears frozen solid until spring.

But there is plenty of action inside the World Tricot factory, located on the outskirts of the snow blanketed town of Lure. Here, half a dozen workers are hustling to finish an order for blazers from one of the world's top fashion designers.

Each worker has a specific task, from cutting out the black-and-white-checked fabric, to ironing the finished product - an elegant, ribboned jacket that will soon be on sale at exclusive stores in Paris, Rome or New York.

Checking their progress is Carmen Colle, founder and head of World Tricot. The tale of the 15-year-old knitwear factory is not ordinary.

But Mrs. Colle is not an ordinary woman.

A former social worker, Mrs. Colle launched World Tricot in 1990 with the idea of offering employment to disadvantaged women and immigrants living in the region. She dreamed about creating a niche business producing painstakingly made sweaters, scarves and jackets for some of the world's most exclusive designers.

There was only one hitch. Mrs. Colle did not have a clue about the textile business or about starting a company.

But Mrs. Colle said she believed everything is possible in life. And there were people around willing to help.

Mrs. Colle and her employees learned from scratch. They attended training sessions on weaving and sewing. She scouted around for start up funds to buy equipment and rent space. Finally, she opened her first office - in a tiny apartment in a low-income housing development in Lure.

Mrs. Colle still remembers her first order - to make 100 sweaters for a local company. Her tired workers were unable to complete the sleeves before the first batch was due. Mrs. Colle sold the batch as sleeveless vests instead.

World Tricot has about 40 full-time employees. Others work part time, from their homes. Almost all Mrs. Colle's employees are immigrant women like Khadija Zanout, who arrived in France from her native Morocco 25 years ago.

Mrs. Zanout says she enjoys working with fabrics. She learned everything about sewing and weaving at World Tricot. And she says there are not many French businesses that make a point of hiring female foreigners.

Labor experts estimate that unemployment rates in France for young immigrant women are four times the national average of 10 percent.

In the industrial Saone region around Lure, unemployment rates are slightly lower. But town officials say the ethnic North Africans, Asians, and Eastern Europeans, who account for more than 10 percent of Lure's 10,000 residents, have a hard time finding jobs.

Mrs. Colle, 53, is no stranger to the hardships facing first generation immigrants. Her parents arrived to France from Italy, shortly after the World War II. Her father worked as a wood cutter. Mrs. Colle dropped out of school as a teenager, and began working in a factory to help boost the family income.

Now, she not only offers employment to immigrants in Lure, but also to women living in impoverished regions of eastern Europe. That includes war-torn Kosovo, four years ago.

Mrs. Colle pushed a wheelbarrow piled high with luxury materials across the border from Macedonia, so she could bring work to local women. She has since visited the Kosovar women several times.

Mrs. Colle said it was difficult doing work in Kosovo, particularly during the frigid days of winter. But the women thanked her, and told me they would been able to buy blankets and clothes for their children with their salaries.

Besides helping disadvantaged women, Mrs. Colle is also trying to the regions traditional weaving industry. She buys her material from people like 53-year-old Rolland Pouilley, who runs a family weaving business about 25 kilometers from Lure.

Mr. Pouilley said all the old weaving businesses in France are closing. They can not compete with cheaper rivals in Taiwan, Italy and elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Colle has received kudos for successfully mixing business and philanthropy. The government is due to award her the coveted Legion of Honor.

In Paris, top designers like Popy Moreni praise Colle's professionalism as well.

Ms. Moreni says that what is impossible for many people is never impossible for Mrs. Colle. She says time and technique are not a problem with Mrs. Cole.

Mrs. Colle recently launched her own designer label, Angele Batist. The lacy tops, in luxurious wools and cottons, are being sold in Germany, Switzerland, Japan, and the United States.

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