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During the first round of France’s presidential election, Laurence Ribeaucourt had the surprise of her political life.
A social worker and local councillor in a poor suburb north-east of Paris, she was monitoring the vote and the last place she expected to see the deprived youths she had cared for over the years was a polling station.
“Almost all of them turned up — I had never seen such political commitment,” Ms Ribeaucourt marvels.
“It was a moving moment. For most of them it was the first time they had voted. Some did not even know what booths were for.”
Many youths stayed behind to help count the ballots — as every French voter is entitled to do.
“It took hours because they had to be taught everything. But it was worth it. They got an education in citizenship,” she says.
Turnout at the polling station was 83% of registered voters. This matched the high national average.
But in one of France’s worst sink estates — where usually only about 40% bother to vote — it was an unprecedented triumph.
The result may have been exceptional — but it was replicated in other immigrant suburbs.
In nearby Clichy, one of the most deprived towns in France’s poorest department, Seine-Saint-Denis, turnout also topped 80%.
A year and a half ago, Clichy’s teenagers launched a wave of riots that spread to banlieues (suburbs) across France.
Today, local youths — most of whom have French citizenship — are eager to air their grievances by casting ballots, not burning cars.
“Electing a president is important,” says first-time voter Alain Djoudjou, 18.
He recalls that in the previous presidential election in 2002, far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the run-off largely through voter apathy. “Each votes counts,” he says.
In Clichy — as in many other French suburbs — the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of Segolene Royal.
There are several reasons why the Socialist candidate appeals to banlieue youths.
Unlike her second-round conservative rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, she did bother to come to Clichy during the campaign. She is seen as reassuring and tolerant, and has promised to “listen to our suburbs where the fire is still smouldering”. Her pledge to create subsidised jobs strikes a chord in areas where unemployment is sky-high.
Lofti Allag, 22, a plumbing worker from Clichy, is particularly attracted by Ms Royal’s pledge to raise the minimum wage by 19%. “I’d feel great about that,” he says.
But to most young men in the suburbs, Ms Royal’s main attraction is that she is not Mr Sarkozy.
Journalist Nadir Dendoune, who noted the same unprecedented level of mobilisation near Saint-Denis north of Paris, says: “It was a vote against Sarkozy.”
As interior minister, he antagonised many people by speaking about cleaning estates “with a pressure hose” and called delinquents “rabble” — a word widely used in the suburb but seen as offensive from a minister.
“I did not like his word,” says Karim Hamdoune, an 18-year-old from Clichy, who feels that Mr Sarkozy “branded all Arab youths as criminals”.
Mehdi Bigaderne, of AC Le Feu, an association highlighting the plight of neglected suburbs, calls Mr Sarkozy “scary, unpredictable and dangerously divisive”.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the former interior minister’s legacy, in the eyes of young banlieue voters, is his decision to drop community policing in favour of tough law-and-order measures.
“Sniff”, a 25-year-old from Clichy who says he has been beaten by police officers, blames Mr Sarkozy for the sharp deterioration in relations between police and youths.
“We have been parked in sink estates and cops come here to taunt us,” he says. “I’ve seen what he did as a minister and I don’t want him as president.”
Many youths say they are much more worried about Mr Sarkozy than they ever were about Mr Le Pen.
“Le Pen was seen as a troublemaker rather than a serious politician,” says Akram Belkaid, a journalist with the business daily La Tribune. “There was never a danger of him becoming president.”
Some are finding imaginative ways of fighting Mr Sarkozy.
Omar Dawson, who runs a youth association in Grigny, south of Paris, secretly recorded on his mobile phone a meeting between the candidate and activists in February, and posted the clip on the web.
In it, Mr Sarkozy is heard using typically blunt language about his own immigrant origins and the duties of newcomers.
Mr Dawson says he “wanted to show a different image of someone who might be our future president” — although the clip appears unlikely to change anyone’s view of the tough-talking former minister.
Concern about Mr Sarkozy, however, is far from universal in the banlieues. In Seine-Saint-Denis, more than a quarter of voters voted for the centre-right candidate.
Many pensioners living near estates support Mr Sarkozy’s firm stance on crime — and so do a large number of women residents.
Sonya Latrache, a 30-year-old mother of five from Clichy, says she finds Mr Sarkozy much more reassuring than his rival.
“She does not speak with clarity and conviction; it’s just hot air. She is nice but she will do nothing,” she says.
“With Sarkozy, you know where you stand. He wants to help people get back to work and stands for discipline.
“Most women around here will tell you that we need him to clean the place up.”
And indeed, this is the opinion you generally hear when you speak to young girls and mothers across Seine Saint-Denis.
Elodie, a 22-year-old from Montreuil a few miles from Clichy, says she trusts Mr Sarkozy to improve security. “In my estate, he is called racist but I don’t agree,” she says.
On the whole, however, Ms Royal will have the suburbs’ vote. Whether this will help her capture the presidency is unclear.
But whatever the final result, Ms Ribeaucourt says she is optimistic about the growing political influence of the banlieues.
“They are going to take part in public affairs,” she says. “On every issue they will remain mobilised.”
(Posted on May 2, 2007)