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Wednesday, 10 April, 2002, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Unemployment the key issue in Narbonne
Maurice Mamzaoui (left) with Mabrouk Bouaziz, Stephane Lounis, and two friends
Narbonne's voters struggle to find work locally
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Sheila Barter
By BBC News Online's Sheila Barter
In Narbonne

Mabrouk Bouaziz and his friends are passing the time chatting in a street in a neat suburb of Narbonne.

For all of them, there is only one issue in the French presidential election.

Narbonne canal scene
Narbonne: A pretty tourist trap
"The problem here is unemployment," says Mr Bouaziz, and his friends all murmur their agreement.

"There are three million unemployed in France, but we are more badly hit than most places."

Narbonne is one of the Languedoc region's pretty tourist traps, with nothing but vineyards for miles around, a superb southern climate and the Mediterreanean just down the road.

But the town's young people are leaving in droves to find work elsewhere.

Map of France
Coast to coast election reports

  1. Calais unmoved by shorter week
  2. Nanterre murders become election issue
  3. Crime and the French voter
  4. Sleaze leaves voters cold
  5. Apathy rules as vote looms
  6. Nationalism fails to ignite voters

Two of the friends with Mr Bouaziz have already left Narbonne on the same great trek north.

"I work as a gardener at Paris Town Hall," says Maurice Mamzaoui. "The only way to find work is to leave."

His nephew, Stephane Lounis, has also gone. He works as a bodyguard and security agent in Lille.

A young man chatting to an elderly resident at a bus-stop has done the same. He now works in a shop in Paris. His brother works in Compiegne, also in the north. He works hard, he tells me, until he has saved up enough to visit his parents in Narbonne.

And the grandmother I approach at Narbonne's busy JobCentre has the same story to tell.

Job prospects

Her 26-year-old son has already left for Paris, where he works in a kitchen. She is trying to find an extra cleaning job to help bring up her remaining two school-age daughters, but she says it is difficult even to find such low-paid work.

Vineyards, vineyards, vineyards, that's all there is here - if you want anything else you have to leave

Elderly man
"I support Lionel Jospin," she says, "Many people like Jacques Chirac, which is fine if you have money, not if you are unemployed."

Another woman who has found work confirms that Narbonne is losing its next generation.

"Young people leave for the cities in search of work, but there is still a lot of unemployment here.

"I have no interest in either Chirac or Jospin. Their policies don't help towns like Narbonne. Paris is another world away, and they live in another world."

Narbonne's problem are in fact not new.

An elderly man tells me that he also left in his youth to pursue a career in the French postal service.

"Vineyards, vineyards, vineyards, that's all there is here," he says. "If you want anything else you have to leave."

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin
Jospin: Credited with creating a million jobs
But today, he agrees with what I have heard from other people, that unemployment is having a disproportionate affect on the town's ethnic minorities.

France does not count its ethnic minorities, to avoid categorising them. Nationally the number of Muslims is estimated at between six and eight million, Western Europe's biggest population.

It means there are no unemployment statistics for different ethnic groups in Narbonne or anywhere else, but most people here don't need statistics to know there is a problem.

The men chatting on the street tell me they are all the sons of "harkis", Algerians who fled to France after the independence war.

'Sacrificed' generation

They were all born here, all have their French papers, but say that for some people, they are still not French. Their experience has been about low-paid work, or not at all, and racism.

Zacarias Moussaoui
Zacarias Moussaoui: He too left Narbonne
"We are the generation that got sacrified," says Mr Hamzaoui. "It will be better for the third generation. They are getting better education, and better jobs."

All of them are solidly behind Lionel Jospin. They credit him with creating a million jobs, and trust him to deliver the 900,000 he has promised in his election manifesto.

One of Narbonne's young men, who left not in search of work but education, ended up studying in London, where he came under the influence of radical Muslims.

He is Zacarias Moussaoui, facing the death penalty in the US after being charged over the 11 September attacks.

Narbonne was shocked that an alleged terrorist could have his roots in an extremely moderate Muslim community.

Now there is sympathy locally for his mother, who is trying to save his life.

But the factors that forced him to leave Narbonne in the first place have not changed, and the town's young people will continue to be scattered around France and around the world.

BBC News Online's Sheila Barter is travelling across France to gauge the mood ahead of the forthcoming presidential election - this is the seventh of her reports.

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Europe
Record slate for French election
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