French Candidates Court Suburban Youth Vote

Radio stations and local rap artists are helping to sign up thousands of young French voters for the upcoming presidential elections. They're the French-born children of African immigrants, from suburbs that erupted into riots 18 months ago.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The candidates running for president of France are being forced to focus on people who were once ignored. Officials say registration is up 300 percent in some municipalities, and many of the newly registered are the French-born children and grandchildren of immigrants from Africa. They come from the same suburban areas that erupted in riots a year and a half ago in France.

Eleanor Beardsley reports.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

(Soundbite of laser blasting sounds)

Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: At hip-hop FM station Radio Generation, politics is on the menu every day during the morning talk show.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2 (Disc Jockey): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: The disc jockey jokingly offers cheap vacation packages to the Caribbean if conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy becomes president next May. The former interior minister is despised by many young minority youth since he cracked down on suburban troublemakers, calling them scum. Since then, Radio Generation has been part of a movement that helped turn youth anger into tens of thousands of new voters. Each weekend, the radio broadcasts live from a different suburban housing project around Paris, urging young people to get involved. The campaign was the idea of Radio CEO Bruno La Faurestri(ph).

Mr. BRUNO LE FAURESTRI (CEO, Radio Generation): One year it ago, it was okay. Burned car on the TV, it was like a map of car burning. And we said, no. This is the end. We want to have a map of citizenship.

BEARDSLEY: Generation FM has been playing a lot of the rap artist Diam's lately. Diam's was one of the first artists to encourage young people to empower themselves after the riots. Her latest album includes a leaflet on how to register to vote, and the hit song, "Ma France A Moi." Diam's contrasts her France growing up as a second-generation immigrant with a traditional France.

(Soundbite of song "Ma France A Moi")

DIAM'S (Singer/Rapper): (Rapping) (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Just off the beltway south of Paris lies the largely immigrant-populated suburb of le Val d'Oise, where Diam's grew up. Here, concrete block apartment towers used to house workers for surrounding industries. Now most of those jobs are gone. Today, le Val d'Oise has nine percent unemployment and 2,000 new voters. About one-third of them are young people.

Mr. SIX MONZAS(ph) (Resident, le Val d'Oise, France): (French spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

BEARDSLEY: Twenty-five year old Six Monzas, who was born in France but whose parents are from the Congo, says no one in his family has ever voted.

Mr. MONZAS: (Through translator) I have never felt represented in France -ever. We have always felt cast aside. So now I'm voting for the first time. And I think that this will be the first time that people like me will really feel French, because we've always struggled with that question.

BEARDSLEY: The recent political activism in immigrant neighborhoods means that this time around, presidential candidates are taking the suburbs and their problems seriously. Even far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, long considered a racist, has featured men and women of North African origin on his campaign posters. Band member Dierun Monzas(ph) says Le Pen making it to the runoff in the 2002 presidential election and the recent riots made a lot of young people realize they could no longer stand on the outside looking in.

Mr. DIERUN MONZAS: (Through translator) Today, we don't see ourselves as poor people in the suburbs. We've been empowered. It's a new mentality. We now know it's the France below that makes the country tick. But you can't win by screaming and breaking things. Now we're going to get into the machine and start to change things from the inside by voting.

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in le Val d'Oise, France.

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