In France's poor suburbs, angry voters may skip big election

Posters for presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in Stains, France.
Posters for presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in Stains, France. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Mr Cheker Messaoudi, a Frenchman of Tunisian heritage, in Stains, France.
Mr Cheker Messaoudi, a Frenchman of Tunisian heritage, in Stains, France. PHOTO: NYTIMES

STAINS (NYTIMES) - For voters in the poorer, largely immigrant suburbs of Paris, the motivation to turn out for France's presidential runoff seems clear: to defeat Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader of the National Front, who has pitched her campaign against immigrants and Muslims.

The other candidate, centrist Emmanuel Macron, would seem to be an easy alternative. But the reality of this election cycle in towns like Stains, where public frustration is high over the failure of politicians to deliver on past promises, is that many voters may simply choose to stay home on Sunday (May 7) for the critical, final vote.

"Don't count on the working-class neighbourhoods this year to save France," said Ines Seddiki, a 26-year-old French-Muslim in Stains, whose parents came from Morocco.

Although Ms Seddiki said she would vote reluctantly for Macron, she feared she was an exception: "White people who say 'You have to vote against Marine Le Pen because you will lose more than we will' don't realise that for us, we already live in a racist country."

In the first round of the presidential election on April 23, voters in many poorer Parisian suburbs did turn out, but for the fiery candidate on the extreme left, Jean-Luc Melenchon, who channelled the anger of communities neglected by the political system.

 

And many also chose not to vote. That second option - not voting - is now a real possibility in the final round for those who previously voted for Mr Melenchon, even though they arguably have the most at stake.

Just how many voters abstain could determine whether Ms Le Pen can upend expectations and beat Mr Macron. The prevailing assumption is that a broad majority of voters - a Republican Front that includes the poorer suburbs - will come together behind Mr Macron in the name of turning back Ms Le Pen and the far right. But a low turnout could threaten this belief and help Ms Le Pen.

In France's poor suburbs, many French are of Arab extraction with parents or grandparents who came from Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia. Many are also from sub-Saharan Africa; the former French colonies of Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal and Togo; and what was once French Indochina, today's Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

For them, neither the right nor the left has delivered when it comes to making jobs more available and reducing discrimination.

Recent terrorist attacks have worsened the stigma attached to immigrants and Muslims. A number of the house searches after the terror attacks in and around Paris on Nov 13, 2015, were conducted by police in Seine-Saint-Denis, the political jurisdiction that includes Stains.

"The second round is a catastrophe," said Mr Cheker Messaoudi, 29, a Frenchman of Tunisian heritage. "I think with Macron we are facing a war on the economy and with Le Pen we are facing a civil war, so it is bad both ways."

With an abstention rate of 38 per cent including blank ballots in contrast to 23.5 per cent nationwide in the first round of the presidential election, Stains reflects a particularly high degree of disillusionment.

A community of about 38,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of Paris, it voted overwhelmingly for Mr Melenchon, a former Trotskyite, who finished fourth. With Mr Melenchon out, many people see the race, as expressed in an old French saying, as a choice between "la peste et le choléra" (the plague and the cholera).

To many people here, the policy proposals of both candidates are unattractive: Ms Le Pen proposes a law-and-order programme that would place binational Muslims at higher risk of expulsion from the country if they are considered even remotely connected to those suspected of having terrorist links. She also has inveighed against wearing a headscarf in public.

Mr Macron, a former banker, is seen as close to the moneyed elite. He is disparaged for his support for Uber, which employs many people at low wages and often under poor conditions. He worked as a minister to Socialist President Francois Hollande, who promised improvements that never arrived.

Sociologists and political scientists who study France's poorer suburbs with substantial minority populations, known here as banlieues em , said neither candidate had given people much reason to vote for him or her.

"They are really tired of people talking about the banlieues but not doing anything," said Mr Julien Talpin, a researcher in political science at the University of Lille. "Macron in the banlieues is a kind of big failure. He appears to be an embodiment of the establishment, of the elite, and people can tell he's not one of them."

Mr Macron received 22 percent of the vote in Stains.

Mr Thomas Kirszbaum, a sociologist, says the demographics and voting patterns of the poorer suburbs are far more complex than is widely understood. Living together are people of immigrant backgrounds, who vote on the far left or not at all, and some longtime residents, usually white, but also some immigrants, who vote on the extreme right. In Stains, nearly 15 per cent of voters favoured Le Pen.

Then there is a small, new class of young entrepreneurs, both Muslims and non-Muslims, many of whom support Mr Macron, who has made outreach to entrepreneurs a priority.

Mr Talpin noted a big change from 2012, when the poor suburbs turned out in large numbers to vote for the Socialist Party candidate, Hollande; he was running against President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom many people opposed.

"They haven't really mobilised so much against Le Pen," he said, despite the xenophobic tone of her campaign. "They are somehow feeling they are experiencing that discrimination on a daily basis."

Sitting in his office not far from the central square in Stains, the mayor, Azzedine Taibi, who is Muslim, suggested that it would take someone who inspired people, as well as effective government programs, to get people to embrace the political system again.

"This is an electorate that has nothing more to lose," he said. "For this reason, what I see in this election is a sense of abandonment from working-class people: Either we leave them in total hopelessness or we build hope with them through an alternative policy."

Mr Yassine Belattar, a popular stand-up comedian who grew up in the suburbs, said anti-government feeling was significantly stronger this year because of Mr Melenchon, who ratified people's sense of injustice and their fury at the system.

"He manipulates anger for his personal ends," said Belattar, referring to Melanchon, adding that the candidate's refusal to endorse Mr Macron helps Ms Le Pen. Melanchon announced on Friday (April 28) that he would not vote for Ms Le Pen but refused to endorse Mr Macron.

Mr Belattar said he intended to vote for Mr Macron.

Yet the sense of betrayal is acute among many people, not least toward the Socialists who had promised change but failed to follow through.

"Hollande visited the suburbs but these were visits for the media," said Mr Slimane Abderrahmane, an assistant mayor in Bobigny, a neighbouring suburb to Stains, where the abstention rate in the vote last week was 37 per cent (including blank ballots). Mr Melenchon took 43 percent of the vote.

"Hollande promised social and economic programs," he added. "He promised to end racial profiling. He was full of promises that people never saw come true."

Mr Abderrahmane said he was voting for Mr Macron only because he was afraid that the situation for Muslims would get markedly worse under Ms Le Pen.

However, his friend Sylvain Leger, a municipal counsellor who is white and has spent his whole life in Bobigny, said that after voting for Mr Melenchon in the first round, he could not bring himself to vote for Mr Macron. He instead will abstain.

"He's for globalisation 100 per cent," Leger said. "What does that mean when workers come from their own country, mix with French workers, and on one side you have young people who want to work and on the other you have people who come from elsewhere in Europe or from other countries and who work for less?"

On Friday, Catharine Bonte, 75, a former nurse's aide, recalled writing letters to past presidents seeking help.

"They all helped me a bit with social care," said Ms Bonte, who is black. "And Giscard d'Estaing's wife even came to support me once because I was a single mother and I was a victim of injustices and racism."

"But Hollande, he never helped me; he never answered my letters," she added. "So I understand the ones who gave up on voting. There is a lot of suffering here."