AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS, France (Reuters) - For France’s immigrants, life just got worse.
To a group of youths huddling by a fast-food shop west of Paris, the rise of far-right leader Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election comes as no surprise but as worrying confirmation of what they see as their growing isolation in French society.
Le Pen’s breakthrough in Sunday’s first round brought her anti-immigrant National Front (FN) party its highest poll score to date, touching off a round of soul-searching as French elites sought to understand her appeal.
But an explanation comes quickly to these sons and grandsons of North African immigrants, who say harping on Muslim symbols by both Le Pen and President Nicolas Sarkozy has put fear of foreigners into the hearts of many white French people.
“Eighteen percent? I’m surprised she didn’t score more,” said Karim, a 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin, on learning of Le Pen’s score. “When you watch the campaign on TV and all they talk about is halal meat, Muslims and al Qaeda, it’s no wonder she is on the rise.”
Le Pen’s program of cutting immigration by 90 percent and protecting France’s identity against perceived encroachment by Muslims has met with growing support in Seine-Saint-Denis, the traditionally pro-Left district where Karim and his friends were raised - despite the fact she never came here to campaign.
Seine-Saint-Denis, with a population of 1.5 million, covers the sprawling northwestern suburbs of Paris and is home to the highest concentration of people of immigrant origin in the country. French law bars compiling statistics by ethnic origin, but census figures show more than one in five residents was born abroad.
National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, got 9 percent there in France’s 2007 election. She boosted that to 13.6 percent, still well below her national score, but nonetheless resonating with the area’s sizeable white community.
Industrial decline has quickened, raising the local unemployment rate to 17 percent and threatening to close the biggest local private sector employer, the nearby Peugeot Citroen PSA.PA auto plant.
Youths like Karim, who was laid off from his job as a garage worker in February, said the economic crisis had given employers an excuse to reject foreign-looking workers for reasons he suspected had more to do with race than business.
“When I go and look for work, they tell me - ‘don’t you watch TV? There’s a crisis going on’, he said. “But then I wonder, how come the white French people get long-term contracts? There are little Le Pens everywhere.”
The police also felt empowered to behave more roughly with frequent identity checks and random searches on youths of Arab and African appearance, Karim said. He said he had been stopped, slapped and kicked in a doorway by police this week.
It was not possible to verify his account independently. Like all the young people questioned for this report, Karim declined to give his family name. Soft drugs were changing hands among some of the youths as he spoke.
Le Pen proposes reserving job vacancies, welfare benefits and public housing for French nationals.
Asked about her contention that foreigners are abusing France’s welfare system, Karim said: “I don’t get anything.”
Sofiane, a 21-year-old apprentice taxi driver, said voters had been conditioned by the media and a divisive presidential campaign to make immigrants and their descendants a scapegoat for their own problems.
“Those people who vote FN are just like us, in this misery, with the same rain and crap jobs. We are all in the same boat, so why blame us? It’s stupidity,” he said, smoking under an awning on the commercial strip flanked by apartment blocks.
Of all the young people interviewed for this report, only one said he had voted in Sunday’s election.
Some of the youths in track suits and baseball caps reacted to the mention of Le Pen’s name with a burst of expletives - inviting her to “come around here and see how we’d welcome her” - but not all rejected her platform wholesale.
One aspect that appeared to garner support was her proposal to pull France out of the euro currency, reinstate national border controls and break out of free trade treaties she says have contributed to the flight of French industry.
“The euro is clearly a disaster,” said Sidi, 32, who had held jobs in banking and works at an employment agency. “It’s made life more expensive to the point where you can’t afford to have any vices, and I more or less agree with what she says about needing borders.”
At that moment, a stranger approached the group hawking a gold watch in one hand, and in the other, a fishing rod. “See?” said Sidi, to a burst of laughter from his friends, adding: “No fishermen here, buddy!”
Jean-Pierre, 45, the French son of an Algerian soldier who fought on the French side during the Algerian war of independence, said Le Pen was right to demand tighter border controls because there were no jobs to give to new immigrants.
But Jean-Pierre and others in Aulnay said the bottom line about Le Pen was that she was fanning racism against foreign-looking people, especially French citizens of North African origin, by describing France’s 5-million-strong Muslim population as problematic.
“I am a Muslim, and I’m French, and I cannot accept someone telling me that this or that custom is not acceptable,” said Jean-Pierre, who owns a car-cleaning business, and said he voted for Sarkozy. “Does she forget that France was in Algeria for 132 years?”
Samir, a 29-year-old panel beater of Moroccan origin who said he had been laid off at the Peugeot plant, said Le Pen’s anti-immigrant stance was hypocritical.
“Our parents came here on big boats during the 1960s to build France,” he said. “How about thanks?”
Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Paul Taylor and Giles Elgood