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France’s suburbs a dim memory in presidential election

Text by Ségolène ALLEMANDOU

Latest update : 2012-04-16

Formerly a topic of national debate and a key issue in France’s 2007 presidential elections, the country’s neglected suburbs appear to have been all but forgotten this time around.

Once a topic of national debate and a hot-button issue during France’s last presidential elections, the banlieues, or suburbs, appear to have been all but forgotten in the final week of campaigning ahead of the first round of voting in the presidential ballot on April 22.

France’s main presidential candidates have taken a cursory interest at best in the banlieues, making slapdash appearances in some of the country’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in recent weeks.

In a whirlwind tour, Socialist Party candidate François Hollande crammed visits to Lyon suburb Vaulx-en-Velin along with a number of Paris’ northern banlieues into a 48-hour period on April 5 and 6.

Following his rival’s lead, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy made a brief stopover in Paris’ northern suburb of Drancy a few days later, on April 10.

Centrist François Bayrou was another candidate who made a quick appearance in the banlieues, spending a total of four hours in Mantes-la-Jolie to the northwest of Paris, to “dialogue with a suburb that is never spoken of” in early March.

Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen, candidate for France’s far-right National Front (FN) party, has applauded her own decision not to visit the suburbs, arguing that “the majority of the population live in rural regions”.

“Suburban neighbourhoods have everything: televisions, cameras and billions of euros in public funding”, Le Pen told the French Senate’s public television channel on April 10.

The lacklustre attention paid to France’s banlieues thus far in the campaign deeply contrasts with the last presidential elections in 2007, when the issue took centre stage after widespread rioting in the suburbs two years before scarred the country’s collective consciousness.

2005 riots

The rioting touched off in October 2005 after Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traore, 15, were electrocuted after climbing into an electrical sub-station while fleeing police in Paris’ northern suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. The incident sparked outrage, prompting herds of angry youths to take to the streets, most memorably leaving a trail of burnt cars in their wake.

Sarkozy, who was interior minister at the time, took a hardline stance on the riots, which took around three weeks to subdue. On November 11, while discussing the “crisis” on the television channel France 2, Sarkozy notoriously referred to youth in the suburbs as “racaille”, or riffraff.

Although long past, the riots and the issues they had raised were still fresh in people’s minds two years later in 2007 as the presidential elections began to heat up. Candidates from across the spectrum clamoured to propose plans on how to improve conditions in some of the country’s most impoverished regions. Having played a pivotal role during the riots, Sarkozy leapt at the opportunity to transform the issue into a key tenet of his campaign by promising to implement a “Marshall Plan” in the suburbs if elected.

New priorities

Yet five years later, as Sarkozy stands for a second term in France’s swiftly approaching presidential elections, his Marshall Plan has all but been forgotten and the suburbs, which are home to seven percent of the country’s population, have faded into the background.

According to a February 2012 study by the French polling centre Ifop, 76 percent of voters said unemployment was the most important issue facing the country in the coming months, while 58 percent cited purchasing power and 57 percent voiced concerns about health. Of the 12 themes ranked in the study, improving the country’s suburbs came in last with only 29 percent.

“The crisis has moved on from there”, said Henri Rey, director of Cevipof, the centre of political research at Sciences Po. “Five years ago, the campaign was focused on issues such as immigration and security. Today, considering the current economic climate, it’s logical that French people are more concerned by employment, in particular youth employment. So of course it is logical that the candidates would also reevaluate their priorities”.

According to Rey, who has studied France’s suburbs for the last 30 years, the issue hasn’t been altogether forgotten, but politicians now tend to approach the issue from a different angle. Instead of attacking the subject head on, presidential hopefuls now visit disadvantaged areas where they attempt to cultivate support with promises of reforms in areas such as employment and education.

For example, Hollande has announced plans to create 150,000 jobs in the future, saying that priority will be given to the country’s working-class neighbourhoods. He has also proposed to exempt businesses that hire people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods from certain operating fees.

Sarkozy has also touched upon the subject, saying he feels “heavily involved” with the issue. He has pledged to pour an additional 18 billion euros into urban renewal efforts. The proposal would be the second phase of a 2003 plan overseen by French politician Jean-Louis Borloo, which has invested more than 40 billion euros to be spent over ten years into 460 different areas.

Traditionally left-leaning

Despite mild attempts to reach out to people in the suburbs, Rey says that ultimately, they are not considered a key demographic to win over because their vote has been traditionally anchored to the Left.

“It’s true that François Hollande has inspired substantially less enthusiasm [in the suburbs] than Ségolène Royal did in 2007, but people continue to hold up the tradition of voting for a socialist candidate”, Rey said.

“Even far-left candidates stand little chance of getting into the game”, he added.

Sarkozy, in particular, may stand little hope of making any gains. Many regard his record of involvement in the suburbs with mixed feelings, after his so-called “Marshall Plan” was buried after the junior minister of urban policy, Fadela Amara, left his government in 2010. Amara’s departure also spelled the death of Sarkozy’s urban renewal plans.

Abdel Elotmami, member of AcleFeu, a community organisation that was founded after the riots in 2005, described Sarkozy’s efforts at urban renewal as little more than “a fresh layer of paint to hide the misery”.

Elotmami went on to say that Sarkozy’s failure to garner support in the suburbs is in part due to the fact that few have been able to turn the page on his harsh reaction to the 2005 riots.

But overall, Elotamami doesn’t find any of the presidential candidates very appealing. Instead, he has placed his faith in local elections slated to be held in 2014.

“People here now understand that they can be both authors and actors in the political scene”, Elotamami said.

Date created : 2012-04-15


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