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Last Updated: Monday, 26 March 2007, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
Candidates target French youth
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

Sarkozy at a meeting with young people in Perpignan
Mr Sarkozy has not yet campaigned in areas worst hit by the riots
A new "Marshall plan" for the young in the troubled French suburbs is being promised by right-wing presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, as the battle for the youth vote in France heats up.

The Marshall plan helped get Germany back on its feet after World War II.

If he wins the presidency in France, Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged a fresh start in education and training for the young and the unemployed in the suburbs or banlieues, which erupted into violence in November 2005 because of frustration over joblessness and racial discrimination.

But the UMP candidate is not the only one making promises aimed at persuading youths in the suburbs that the ballot box is a mightier weapon than taking to the barricades to ensure their problems are heard.

The Socialist contender, Segolene Royal, has pledged that every young French person will receive an interest-free loan of 10,000 euros (6,766) from the state to set them up in adulthood.

Yet, it seems that the man making the fewest promises, centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, is the one currently winning the most hearts and minds in the banlieues.

'Respect'

When Mr Bayrou visited the suburbs of Seine-St-Denis, just outside Paris, the crowds shouted their support for this mild-mannered candidate, who may be best known for his rural background but is developing unexpected appeal for young urban voters.

A young supporter of centrist presidential candidate Francois Bayrou
Mr Bayrou has developed an appeal for young urban voters
His policy for the French suburbs, he told the BBC, was a simple one: "The most important thing is respect - to look at people here as citizens," he insisted. "They ask to be seen as people and as citizens in exactly the same way as any other French man or woman."

That attitude seems to be winning over a difficult constituency, one notoriously disinclined to vote.

Sofia, 23, is a shop assistant in St-Denis who says she had almost given up on politics and politicians before she came to listen to Mr Bayrou.

"He seems to listen to us, to the poor and not just the rich. St-Denis is a poor suburb, and normally politicians don't think about us, the people in the banlieues. They just write us off as dangerous or stupid," she says.

"I will vote for him because Nicolas Sarkozy is a horrible guy and Segolene Royal is not really truly a woman of the left or a woman of the people."

Scars

French Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal (on right) visits Clichy-sous-Bois
Segolene Royal visits Clichy-sous-Bois, scene of riots in 2005
Her friend Samir agrees. "Francois Bayrou is the best candidate and we are pinning our hopes on him. With Sarkozy, we would have a police state in France, and as for Segolene, she talks too much and she doesn't seem competent."

"He was a really cool guy, very accessible," enthuses Mohammed, a shop-keeper in his early 30s. "I think he really would do a lot for us in the suburbs if he were elected."

Even as the scars of the violence of 2005 fade amid the grim tower blocks that surround Paris, the memories remain strong and the social divides deep.

Segolene Royal was also to be found making a personal trip to canvas for votes in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, the area where the riots started. In the most deprived suburbs 22% of people are unemployed, rising to over 40% for those aged under 25.

How many youngsters of immigrant origin are without work is hard to establish, as French law forbids the collection of any data on ethnicity, in the belief that all French citizens are equal.

Tough suburbs

It is not a belief shared by many in the suburbs, even as Ms Royal sought to reassure her audience there that she came to offer them new hope.

"We can't divide the country into the suburbs on the one hand, and the rest of the nation on the other," she said to enthusiastic cheers. "You are not the problem. On the contrary - you are part of the solution."

Onlookers may have been impressed that the Socialist candidate had braved the suburbs, but few seemed willing to vote for her.

Shop in Aulnay-sous-Bois
Memories of the rioting in Paris's suburbs remain strong
"We don't have a lot of candidates who dare to come and visit us, so it's reassuring to see that Segolene Royal felt able to come," said Rafi, 23, who is currently unemployed. "I'm not sure I want to vote for her, though. Nicolas Sarkozy didn't even dare come here yet, because of what he said during the riots."

The UMP candidate and French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy had been expected on a campaign visit to Argenteuil, one of the areas worst affected during the riots, but the visit never took place.

His comment at the start of the riots ("I will clear the streets of these yobs with a power-hose") has not been forgotten here, even though a surprising number of people in the banlieues say they will vote for him, especially those of immigrant origin who believe in his explicit commitment to racial equality.

An opinion poll conducted among voters in the toughest suburbs for Le Journal Du Dimanche in February showed that 27% believed that Mr Sarkozy was the candidate who best understood the problems and the needs of voters there, leaving Segolene Royal trailing on 23%, even though a majority of those polled said they would vote for the left rather than the right.

Mr Sarkozy did go in person to woo young voters in a suburb of Perpignan in southern France, talking to some 50 youths, most in hoodies.

'Man of the people'

"I am here because I have a message to deliver to all French youth. For me, your potential isn't limited to things such as sport. France is diverse, and we shouldn't be scared of this diversity," he urged.

"He was surprisingly nice, and seemed very open," admitted one girl in the audience. "I wasn't expecting that at all. I thought he would be much less pleasant."

"He came to talk to us and he wasn't scared," said Abdel. "He is a man of the people, and he believes in certain values - hard work and promotion on merit - which matter."

An organisation set up to work in the suburbs after the riots, AC Le Feu, has spent several weeks leafleting potential voters there to ensure that they register to vote, leading to record numbers of registrations in many areas.

But will the young and the unemployed of the suburbs really go to the ballot box on 22 April and 6 May?

Pascale Perinneau, a political analyst at Sciences-Po University in Paris, is not convinced they will.

"It's hard to know if these youngsters will actually go out and vote en masse," he admits. "It's one thing to tell pollsters who you plan to vote for - but actually doing it is another."




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