Once a Socialist stronghold, Paris suburb tempted to abstain
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In 2012, the Paris suburb of Villetaneuse voted overwhelmingly for then Socialist candidate François Hollande. Five years on, some voters are so disappointed in their choice that this time round they’re tempted to abstain.
There’s little to draw visitors to the semi-deserted streets of Villetaneuse.
Even the 24,000 students of the Paris-XIII University, whose campus lies just southwest of the town, rarely frequent the centre in huge numbers.
Located between the northern Paris suburbs of Saint-Denis and Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, and with a population of 13,000, only the line 8 tram, operational since December 2014, offers locals the chance to break away from an often monotonous daily routine.
Along the outskirts of the Pablo Neruda station, workers are busily trying to meet an April deadline for the expansion of the University of Paris-XIII library. Although only partially completed the modern stainless steel façade is an impressive sight, but it’s lost on the unemployed who file into the employment bureau, located directly opposite.
‘They don’t care about the suburbs…’
“It's all well and good to renovate the suburbs, to put us in beautiful buildings, but for us nothing changes - we still have a hard time finding work," laments Marwan, 22, who has been going to the bureau once a week to send off resumes since the start of the year.
He lives on the Allende housing estate, and is looking for a technician’s job "anywhere, day or night" so he can support his mother, who’s unemployed with three dependent children.
Marwan says the current crop of politicians have little insight into the reality of life in the Paris suburbs.
“They don’t care about people in this area, so we don’t give a damn about them," he says.
Believing that he has "nothing to gain", Marwan has decided not to vote in the upcoming presidential election.
It’s a view shared by Fanir, 23, who is looking for a job in fiber optics. He says he won’t vote because “it will not change my life”, and that none of the presidential candidates were going to make it easier for him to find a job.
Fanir was scathing in his criticism of the current president, saying that: "Five years later, we can say that François Hollande did nothing at all!"
A communist enclave since 1945, it was here in Villetaneuse that Hollande won a record 78.2 percent of the vote in the second round of the 2012 election.
At the time, the Socialist candidate had inspired great hope among the working classes in the wake of then president Nicolas Sarkozy, nicknamed “President Bling-Bling” because of his penchant for expensive watches and designer brands.
"He [Hollande] came to our neighbourhoods in 2012 just to get our votes before the elections but afterwards, we never saw him again," says Marwan.
Disillusionment is now rampant in this once solidly "red" heartland. Unemployment in Villetaneuse remains stubbornly high at 25.7%, two-and-a-half times higher than the national average, according to official figures.
"Unemployment affects both young people who’ve gone on to higher education and those who don’t have access to training," says Villetaneuse Mayor Carinne Juste.
While Hollande’s government did keep its election promise to create 300,000 new jobs, they went to mainly non-graduate youth.
The employment bureau, which is funded both locally and by the European Union, is one of the sole refuges for anyone seeking a way out of the joblessness cycle.
“Every time I found a job, it was thanks to them,” Fanir explains.
"The advisers are really involved. Much more so than the city mayor or François Hollande! No blah blah, just action.”
‘Nothing for the suburbs’
At the employment bureau, a group of five young people are training in computer science. “It’s thanks to Hollande that we can do this,” says 19-year-old Mamadou, with a beaming smile. "But I’m not planning on voting either...”
"The problem is that nobody is convincing", his friend Mathieu pitches in, the only one of the group who lives in the residential part of the town. "In their programs, there is nothing for the suburbs," he says despairingly.
Mamadou would like to "create a political party", to fight racism, among other things. "I have a lot of hatred for the state and the national education system, I have so many racist teachers. There is too much discrimination in France," he said.
Aside from failing to reduce unemployment, other broken promises have exacerbated the electorate’s ill will towards Hollande. They include his government’s failure to follow through on a referendum on foreigners’ rights to vote in local elections, the reinstatement of local police and a memo on racial profiling, which was never put into place.
In the north of the municipality, which has more than 70 percent social housing, Jacky, 43, from the Victor Hugo housing estate blames the politicians for not going into the suburbs to see the lack of police services for themselves.
"We don’t even get a police station when mothers and even the doctor are attacked in the town around 7pm," he said. "What happens to the 1080 euros in local taxes that I pay to the state each year?”
The people of Villetaneuse are forced to rely on the police station at nearby Épinay-sur-Seine. "We lack the human resources," admits Mayor Carinne Juste, who prefers to focus on crime prevention by deploying mediators and installing surveillance cameras.
As for François Fillon and the “fake jobs” scandal, Jacky doesn't even try to hide his contempt. "He is already well paid as a politician but to give his wife more work when there are some who are starving. No, it’s shameful!" he says angrily, sliding his hands into the pockets of his blue and green tracksuit.
Although he says he is “resigned” when it comes to the elections, Jacky still plans to go to the polls on 23 April. I asked him how he would vote at the ballot box.
And what of the far-right’s Marine Le Pen? "At times, I think I'll vote for her. I like her beliefs. She wants to close the borders, which is good for preventing attacks in France,” he says before continuing: "It's just the economy, I don’t know if she’s up to it…"
Anne, who also lives on the housing estate, has a very different point of view. Divorced with two dependent children, this 42-year-old mother has lost her state housing assistance but still wants to believe in the left.
"But right now, no one has convinced me yet. The question is, in my opinion, who really wants to change things? I’m waiting to see.”
Others are tempted to cast a "blank ballot".
“Why not finally recognise this type of vote?” said Stéphane, a 46-year-old father of three who believes the politicians have reached a point of no return.
Many more people may also cast a "blank ballot", particularly given that a recent poll showed 60 percent of people in Villetaneuse remain undecided. With only weeks to go before the first round vote on 23 April, politicians need to up their game to win over working class voters.
This article was translated from the original in French.