- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2002

TOULOUSE, France As she attends a campaign rally for her favorite presidential candidate in a rundown stadium in southwestern France, Malika Ahmed represents a new, and slowly growing force in French politics. She is a 33-year-old Arab-Berber woman born in Morocco and the deputy mayor of a Paris suburb.
The candidate is former Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement. "I like his convictions," Mrs. Ahmed said. "I like his egalitarian approach."
More precisely, she likes Mr. Chevenement's campaign promise, as head of the small, center-left Citizen's Movement Party, to offer equal opportunities for people like herself to say nothing of the memory of his 1991 resignation as defense minister over French involvement in the Persian Gulf war against Iraq.
"We second-generation immigrants are not looking for quotas," said Mrs. Ahmed, who is deputy mayor of Aubervilliers. "We want our just place in this society."
Such sentiments help explain the shifting tectonics of France's Muslim voters. A new crop of second- and third-generation immigrants is edging onto the political scene. Old political allegiances, once neatly split between aging conservatives and their leftist-oriented offspring, are dissolving.
And as politicians gear up for this spring's presidential and legislative elections, few can afford to ignore the country's 5 million Arabs, Africans and Turks Western Europe's largest Muslim community, who make up about 10 percent of France's population.
"All the political parties have taken into account the reality of the Muslim voting potential in France," said sociologist Franck Fregosi, referring to the presidential primary today and runoff May 5, and the legislative elections June 9 and 16.
"But the reality is, there's nothing that shows French Muslims will vote for one party or another. Most think neither the left nor the right has done much for them."
Only about a third of French Muslims are eligible to vote. But as the population shops around this election season, an eclectic array of presidential candidates is scrambling for their support.
Even Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, has softened his anti-immigration rhetoric and hired an aide of North African descent.
"There is an electoral cushion of about 1.5 million people of North African origin," said Mouloud Aouni, head of the French anti-discrimination group MRAP and born an Algerian. "They can make or unmake majorities. They can make or unmake a president. They can make or unmake a deputy. The politicians have understood."
And few have understood better than France's two top presidential contenders. President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin are running almost dead even in recent polls. A small shift in support could tip the voting scales.
Mr. Chirac's conservative Rally for the Republic Party has counted in the past on backing from France's aging "harkis" Algerians who sided with France during their country's war of independence. But today, Mr. Chirac is winning new respect from Muslim youth, who consider him more pro-Palestinian than Mr. Jospin.
Mr. Jospin, too, has not forgotten Muslim voters. The Socialist prime minister followed in the president's wake to North Africa in December, and quietly promised worried religious leaders there would be enough slaughterhouses in France conforming to "halal" the Islamic equivalent of "kosher" for the eid al-Adha feast in February.
Mr. Jospin's campaign platform acknowledges a key demand of many Muslims to give longtime, non-European residents the right to vote.
France's fiercely secular republican creed of liberty, equality and fraternity shuns notions of special lobbies and communities. Indeed, there are no official polls breaking down the French population by ethnic origin or religion. But it doesn't take a poll to reveal that French Muslims remain a fractured and sidelined minority.
Recent years have witnessed an emerging French Muslim middle class of doctors, lawyers and local politicians such as Mrs. Ahmed. But community leaders point out there is a gap between them and the tens of thousands of second- and third-generation immigrants still locked into second-rate schools, low-paying jobs and gritty suburban housing projects that are playgrounds of violence.
"There's an elite being formed that is neither representative nor recognized by the mass that lives in the popular neighborhoods," said Mehdi Aouda, president of Initiatives, a grass-roots group mobilizing ethnic Arab youth. "That's why this community carries no weight in elections because it's disorganized, with each little group looking after its own interests."
On French movie screens and sports fields, new stars are following the path of soccer champion Zinnedine Zidane, who briefly brought the nation together when he was pivotal to France's victory in the 1998 World Cup. But on the streets, Muslims face racial taunts that have surfaced after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, and a crackdown on Islamic extremists in Europe.
"Why should I vote?" asked Hussein Saoudi, a Moroccan-born bartender in Paris, who has French citizenship. "French politicians have done nothing for me."
Courting the Muslim vote can also be hazardous. Surging crime rates a top campaign issue are often blamed on disaffected ethnic Arab youths, as has a recent spate of attacks on Jewish synagogues and institutions. And while the French are generally sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle in the Middle East, prejudice against Arab immigrants at home runs high.
"Going out on a limb for the Muslim vote may mean alienating other voters who are very sensitive to their presence," said Steve Ekovich, professor of French politics at the American University in Paris. "It may end up costing more votes than you gain by it."
Today, top public-sector jobs remain a largely all-white-male bastion. And not a single member of France's Senate or National Assembly is of Arab extraction.

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