VILLENEUVE-LA-GARENNE, France (Reuters) - Young people branded “scum” in 2005 this year offer an electoral prize, as an approaching presidential election draws politicians to France’s riot-hit suburbs on the hunt for votes.
Even conservative presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy — who dismissed angry youths as thugs — has joined Socialist Segolene Royal in hiring rappers and actors to court young voters from France’s poor neighborhoods, the ‘banlieues’.
But it will take more than music to win over people in the ethnically diverse estates, where youths angry about poverty and unemployment torched thousands of cars 14 months ago.
“I’m a bit fed up with politics. Nothing’s changed since the riots,” said Karim Yassine, 20, hanging out with his friends on a parking lot in a bleak estate north of Paris.
“Many people here have too many personal problems. Worrying about politics is not a priority ... There’s nothing here. No jobs, no perspective. All we have is that sad basketball court,” he said, pointing to an empty, potholed square.
Royal has called on youngsters like Yassine to register to vote. Pro-democracy groups say more than a third of potential voters are not on electoral lists in some poor neighborhoods. Even among those who are, abstention has run as high as 50 percent in recent polls, they say.
Analysts say Sarkozy and Royal have responded to a recent shift in voters’ preferences in adjusting their stance on the suburbs, shifting from tough comments on law and order to an emphasis on the need to boost jobs in difficult neighborhoods.
“French people’s priorities have developed a lot since the 2002 (presidential poll) and are now focused on social concerns, rather than the authority and security issues that dominated in 2002,” said Gael Sliman from pollster BVA.
Voters listed poverty and economic insecurity as key concerns ahead of the 2007 poll in a recent BVA poll, while security ranked only sixth.
Sarkozy, sharply criticized for calling rioting youths “scum” and for vowing in 2005 to “clean out” the suburbs, has adopted a markedly softer tone.
He invited a group of youngsters to his ministry last month, telling them they were “French like any others ... but as you have certain difficulties, we must help you more than others.”
Royal too has been rebuked by suburban youths, angered over her tough law-and-order proposals that included a plan to send young troublemakers to military-style boot camps.
Since, she has promised more money for schools in tough neighborhoods and launched a campaign to get out the youth vote, securing the help of popular rapper Cali.
Even far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has produced a new campaign poster, which — rather than featuring a portrait of himself — shows a young woman of immigrant background.
A recent Ipsos poll showed 56 percent of 18-25 year olds say Royal is well placed to respond to their concerns, with Sarkozy scoring only 44 percent and Le Pen winning 11 percent. There are no specific polls on voting preferences in the suburbs.
Sliman said youngsters from difficult neighborhoods were so angry with Sarkozy that he was unlikely to capture these voters. But appealing to them was still important, he said.
“It’s like advertising, when 25-year olds promote lotions for middle-aged women,” he said. “Sarkozy is addressing kids from the suburbs, but he is really speaking to the middle class — to show he’s human and not a ‘light’ version of Le Pen.”
Several local associations and politicians toured the suburbs in past weeks, trying to convince young people to register for the 2007 poll before an end-of-year deadline.
Some 2 million people in France are not registered, the interior ministry says. Pro-democracy groups say the number is closer to 5 million and particularly high in poor suburbs.
Fouad Babaci said he had been too lazy to get involved. The 19-year old only decided to register when a group of youth workers around student Abdel Ait-Omar brought registration papers to the square he was hanging out on.
“Many say voting won’t change things,” Babaci said. “But if there are a lot of people from the suburbs who vote, they will vote against Sarkozy. If we all vote, he won’t win.”
Analysts say it is not clear how significantly stronger than usual the banlieue vote might be, although many suburbs recorded a rise in voter registration after rappers and TV stars called on young people to register.
In Clichy-Sous-Bois, flashpoint for the 2005 riots, registrations over the past two years rose by 2,000 to about 9,000. Most of the increase came right after the riots, officials said.
But the CIDEM pro-democracy group said overall registrations only rose by one percent after the riots, and officials say any rise below 3 percent does not significantly change the voter base. National figures on 2006 registrations are due in March.
Ait-Omar said whatever the outcome, youths from poor suburbs could get a taste for politics in the 2007 poll, inciting them to get more involved in their community — or in politics.
“New rap studios and soccer tournaments ... are not what we demand. These youths must move into key positions.”