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Last Updated: Friday, 6 April 2007, 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK
Multi-ethnic Marseille demands jobs
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent, Marseille, France

Sarkozy supporters putting up election posters in Marseille
Election posters have gone up by Marseille's famous marina
Marseille is a raw, brash, working-class southern city with a tough reputation - the melting pot of France where, on a clear day, you can almost see the shores of North Africa.

Its northern suburbs are no easy place to grow up, as UMP parliamentary candidate Nora Remadnia-Preziosi can testify.

Her family settled here from North Africa, and she considers herself French to the tips of her perfectly manicured fingers.

Now, she is campaigning in those same suburbs for the right-wing presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, trying to spread the message that he is the only candidate who can offer pride to France's immigrant community, by creating new jobs and a sense of belonging.

"Nicolas Sarkozy is a man with real values. He knows the value of hard work, the family, self-respect and respect for others," she says passionately.

"I was born in the most disadvantaged suburb of northern Marseille, where everyone has voted Socialist for generations, but when you start your first job, you realise their ideas don't work. That's why I am determined to fight the left with Nicolas Sarkozy."

Hardline reputation

Nora is among friends here at the UMP's tiny headquarters, not far from the port, where she is gathering the troops before heading out to canvass in the suburbs.

Friday prayers at Marseille mosque
Marseille is home to many Muslims from North Africa
Two of those here today used to vote Socialist but now say that Nicolas Sarkozy - himself the son of a Hungarian immigrant - is the only candidate to preach self-reliance and offer concrete plans for better integration.

Carmen Mabrouk says his reputation as a hardline interior minister should not be held against him.

"I don't think the banlieues [suburbs] here are against him, despite what happened in 2005. We were a bit disappointed with what he said during the riots. But with the promises he's kept, I think we must give him a second chance."

Mr Sarkozy controversially promised to rid the streets of racaille - rabble - shortly before youths clashed with police in cities across France.

Carmen says: "We need to make everyone feel equal, with no racism or nepotism.

"I hope that as president he'd do that. We're all humans, all the same, and as he's the son of an immigrant himself, I hope he'll understand what we need."

Demand for jobs

Yet do these UMP supporters, almost all with North African roots, feel excluded when Mr Sarkozy or Segolene Royal start wrapping themselves in the tricolour, and talking of the need for national identity? Not a bit of it.

What we need is to teach our children to be part of society again - they have forgotten the most basic rules

All believe that jobs are the only way to integrate France and bring about a true sense of national identity and joint purpose for all French, whatever their ethnic background.

Mohamed Hamid has the intense blue-green eyes of the Berbers of North Africa, and is a karate master who spends his free time teaching sport to youngsters in the banlieue, trying to keep them off the streets.

"I am now in favour of the right because they are consistent. The left gave a lot of money to the unemployed and to youngsters in the past, but they made no-one accountable for it.

"Living off the state without doing anything in return is a bad system that doesn't really help people," he insists.

"I don't mind giving money to those who need it, but people have to do something in exchange. When my mother came from Algeria, she was a single mother with three young children.

"She didn't wait for the money from the government - she went out and worked, and sent us to school. It was tough, but we made it. And others can too."

Marseille street with graffiti
Urban deprivation is all too apparent in northern Marseille
Marie-Yves - whose family came from the French overseas territories - is also sure it's the right path.

"What we need is to teach our children to be part of society again - they have forgotten the most basic rules, the most basic politeness," she says.

"They don't know how to say 'hello', 'goodbye' or 'thank you'. They are so aggressive. Giving them a good education is the most important thing," she says.

"Work is what our children need - they need to feel that they are useful to society and can contribute something."

Mehdi Abdul agrees. "I used to vote left, but I realised that I want to be equal, not live on handouts. If I have a job, then I can be your equal, even if I don't have blue eyes or blond hair and my name is Mehdi."

Appeal for patriotism

In the overflowing mosques of Marseille, too small to hold all those who want to take part in Friday afternoon prayers, imams such as Abderrahmane Ghoul have been calling on believers to make sure they vote.

He has emphasised that in order to play a real part in French society, the ballot box is the best way, rather than taking to the barricades.

Segolene Royal campaigning in Marseille
Segolene Royal includes national pride in her message
Nearby, in the Zenith community hall, Socialist candidate Segolene Royal is doing her best to persuade the people of Marseille to reverse their traditional support for the right in presidential elections.

At the end of her rally, she encourages a lusty rendering of the Marseillaise French national anthem, reassuring the hall packed with Socialist voters that there is nothing "nationalistic" about singing it.

"This is our anthem," she told them, "and it is about the struggle we all face together."

Then she went on to shock much of the left by suggesting that every French family should keep a tricolour at home, to bring out on national days of celebration and show their pride in the nation.

It may have shocked the intellectuals of the Left Bank in Paris, but Ms Royal's working-class supporters in the hall cheered and shouted their support - black and white alike. The theme of national identity, and creating a more united country, has gone down well with this audience.

"I like what she says," Souad told me after the rally. "She wants a more just society, one in which we're all equal, whether from north or south or whatever colour we are. I have had enough of ghettoes and prisons for our community. I want a France without racism, and she can help create that."

With well over 10% of its population from ethnic minorities or with parents born abroad, Marseille remains France's most ethnically-mixed city.

To the surprise of many, the city's suburbs remained peaceful during the riots of 2005. Rumour has it that local gangs warned youths not to resort to violence, so that the police did not peer too closely into their dealings on the housing estates.

Whatever the reason, the problems that so many French cities face are magnified here, in a city with a 14% unemployment rate, high crime rates and a culture of casual, sudden violence.

Nora Remadnia-Preziosi sets out to canvas in the northern suburbs with a large bodyguard in tow, just in case, as she seeks to spread the word that Mr Sarkozy is the man who will provide the youngsters here with jobs - at least, for those who want to work.

Youngsters in hoodies and big black boots sit smoking on a graffitied wall. To my surprise, they take her campaign leaflets and look interested, perhaps because one of the bodyguards has just whispered to them, not quite out of earshot, "Say one word out of place and you're finished!"

But just as likely, they too are hoping that France's next president, whoever it may be, will help unite this fractured and fractious nation, and steer it towards calmer waters.

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