In 'banlieue' cafe, election talk centres on police, welfare, integration

10th April 2007, Comments 0 comments

VAL FOURRE, France, April 8, 2007 (AFP) - Two weeks ahead of France's presidential election, debate is heating up among the residents of Val Fourre, a high-rise and high-immigration suburb by the river Seine about 35 miles (55 kilometres) west of Paris.

VAL FOURRE, France, April 8, 2007 (AFP) - Two weeks ahead of France's presidential election, debate is heating up among the residents of Val Fourre, a high-rise and high-immigration suburb by the river Seine about 35 miles (55 kilometres) west of Paris.

On the main concourse -- next to a Halal butchers' shop, several greengrocers and a municipal gym offering Thai boxing classes -- two bank workers take their lunch break at a pizzeria, sharing their food in the early spring sun.

Khalid Balhadaoui, 29, is the son of a Moroccan immigrant who like thousands of others came to work in a nearby car factory in the 1960s. He has a trim beard and wears a dark suit and tie. His colleague Cedric Poirier, 37, wears a soft leather jacket and comes from Normandy.

Discussion centres on the relative merits of the two front-runners for April 22: the socialist Segolene Royal -- the first woman to have a serious chance of becoming French president -- and Nicolas Sarkozy, the head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) who has just stepped down as interior minister.

"For me it is automatic: Segolene," says Balhadaoui. "She represents an idea of France that I share, but more importantly it's a vote to keep out Sarkozy. Since he became interior minister, it's been nothing but trouble: constant police controls. And when I'm not in a suit, suddenly I'm a suspect.

"What I cannot accept is that when I'm stopped by the police, I'm presumed guilty. I feel I have to justify my innocence -- I have to prove that my car is not stolen. People of my age learn how to master the sense of humiliation, but I can see why if you're less mature, you feel you have to hit back," he says.

But Poirier says supports Sarkozy, despite coming from a family of socialist supporters.

"My family always voted socialist. My parents were devotees of (former president) Francois Mitterrand. But something's changed. I haven't voted for 15 years, but today -- with this France of the 35-hour week -- I know what I have to do.

"For me the priority is getting people back to work. We have to help people turn off the welfare tap. My view is that when you get integration in the work place, you get social integration too. That's why I am voting Sarkozy," says Poirier.

"Also there's his idea for a ministry of immigration and national identity. There's a huge argument about it, but I have read that we are the only country in Europe that does not have one."

But Balhadaoui objects.

"Hang on Cedric, I am Muslim, of Moroccan origin -- but above all a French citizen. I am married to a so-called 'native' French woman. This ministry idea just makes me feel that I have to leave everything behind -- my Muslimness, my Moroccanness -- when the same does not apply to others."

Poirier insists that integration is a valid issue, however.

"Remember that woman who came in to the bank, dressed head to toe in a veil I told her that for security reasons she had to show her face, but she refused. Why should I have to treat her with kid gloves, when she's the one who's flouting our Republican values?" he says.

"France is a land of asylum, and I am all for it. But when people come here only for the handouts, that's a different matter. My wife owns a shop and has to pay 60 percent of her turnover on social charges. She's going mad," says Poirier.

"No one talks about the polygamy issue but we all know what's going on. I see their bank accounts. Remember that guy who had nine children with different wives and he was getting 1,900 euros (2,550 dollars) a month? That's more than I earn -- and I work!"

Balhadaoui acknowledges benefit fraud is a problem.

"It's true. I know it goes on, and it needs to change. Other countries are far more advanced than we are on welfare reform, but France is so haughty: it's afraid of losing face," he says.

"If you ask me we are expressing the same thing. You in your way, me in mine, the rioting kids in their way, we've all the same message: enough is enough."


Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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