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Thursday, 25 April, 2002, 07:37 GMT 08:37 UK
Le Pen's success 'stuns' ethnic minorities
Nassim (left) and his friend
Immigration was significant to many of Mr Le Pen's voters

Nassim is one of the immigrants Jean-Marie Le Pen would probably like to send home.

He arrived in France from Algeria just four months ago. Now he is sitting in a bar in Paris, drinking coffee with his French-born Algerian friend, who strums his guitar as the two of them put the world to rights.

Eventually, Nassim reveals why he made up his mind to leave Algeria.

He has seen a 13-year-old boy, one of his neighbours, being shot in the head and killed by security forces.

It is the most terrible incident he has witnessed in what he says is a whole campaign of repression against his people, the Berbers, in Algeria's Kabylie region.

Philisophical attitude

Now, having arrived in France to find a political storm over immigration, he is philosophical.

"Politics is like football - the ball goes to one end but then back to the other. I think people are already ashamed of the way they voted," he says.

Immigration was the second most significant factor driving Mr Le Pen's voters
  • French population: 58.5 million
  • Non-French national population: 3.2 million (5.4% of total)
  • Population of African origin: 1.4 million
  • Mainly originate from former French colonies including Senegal, Mali, Algeria and Morocco.
  • "It was out of stupidity, taking some sort of revenge. I am sure Chirac will win the second round."

    Immigrants like Nassim are crucial to France's political debate.

    Immigration - after crime - was the second most significant factor driving Mr Le Pen's voters, according to exit polls.

    In fact, the two issues are almost inseparable, as many white voters see crime as a virtual monopoly of the ethnic minorities, whether from North Africa, West Africa or Eastern Europe.

    Most French people use the term immigrants very loosely, to describe anyone from a non-white background.

    Even second- or third-generation French citizens are usually lumped in together as "immigrants", "foreigners".

    But actual immigrants are still arriving, many to join family members already here, or fleeing unrest, or in search of improved living standards.

    Some intend to pass through France on their way to other destinations. One West African woman tells me she has just divorced and wants to join relatives in London.

    Others intend to make their permanent homes in the dreary flats which encircle many of France's towns and cities.

    Unrepresented minority

    France's ethnic minority population is already disproportionately affected by poor housing and unemployment, and is virtually unrepresented in parliament.

    I have heard him say 'I appeal to all races, I can represent everyone'. He is like a wolf in sheep's clothing

    Paris resident

    Some fear their problems can only multiply now that a man of Mr Le Pen's opinions has achieved an election coup - earning himself an unprecedented platform from which to expound his policies.

    "What gets me most about Le Pen is that he says he is not racist," says Nassim's friend, a blue-eyed fair-skinned Algerian who laughs as he tells me that people mistake him for a white man until they learn his name.

    Born in France to Algerian parents, he is a citizen of both countries - something else Mr Le Pen would like to do away with, along with immigration, and equal benefit rights for foreigners.

    'Wolf in sheep's clothing'

    But Nassim agrees that Mr Le Pen has skilfully tried to play down his more extreme policies, to appeal to as many mainstream voters as possible.

    "He is trying to minimise the dramatic effect of his success, and of his policies. I have heard him say 'I appeal to all races, I can represent everyone'.

    "He is like a wolf in sheep's clothing."

    Christophe Guesnier, playing with his seven-month-old son, agrees that Mr Pen is trying to hide his true colours.

    "For 15 years he has been saying he is against blacks and Arabs. It is terrible. Now he is trying to disguise himself."

    Mr Le Pen has triumphed, he says, on a wave of fear about crime - a fear which many people tell me has been exaggerated by the media.

    Crime in the grafitti-plastered suburbs is real enough, but many people tell me it has been exaggerated by the media.

    "I think people are now afraid of the young," says Mr Guesnier, a hospital care worker. "If they see someone in a baseball cap, they think he's a mugger. If they see someone on a moped, they think he's going to snatch their bag."

    'Wake up call'

    Mr Le Pen's success could make matters worse, people tell me. Some think his policies might creep into Mr Chirac's policies in time to come.

    Older people want the past, to go back to how things were, but France is mixed now, and that is the future

    Christophe Guesnier
    Some of France's ethnic minority voters tell me the wake-up call might actually do them good in the longer term, by awakening the country from its democratic stupor.

    But other ethnic minority residents tell me the damage has already been done - and they are stunned to find themselves living in a country, or a community, where so many people have voted for a man they see as racist and fascist.

    In areas where white people look at black youths and see criminals, the black youths now look at their white neighbours and see National Front voters.

    Christophe Guesnier
    Many believe that Mr Le Pen is trying to hide his true colours
    "There goes one now," one member of a group of black young men tells me, pointing at an elderly white woman crossing the square.

    Maybe he is right, maybe not.

    She, no doubt, would have labelled him as a thief.

    No-one expects Mr Le Pen to win in the second round, but mutual suspicion has only been intensified by what has already happened.

    No going back

    The last great watershed was the French football team's World Cup victory - when a mixed race team sparked unprecedented celebration of France's multi-culturalism and a wave of optimism about the future of race relations.

    And Christophe Guesnier insists there is no going back for France.

    He is white, his wife is from the French West Indies and their three children are mixed race.

    "Older people want the past, to go back to how things were," he says. "But France is mixed now, and that is the future."

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    See also:

    24 Apr 02 | UK Politics
    22 Apr 02 | Europe
    22 Apr 02 | Africa
    22 Apr 02 | UK Politics
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