MANTES-LA-JOLIE, France -- Fernand Trigano stood beside a rack of $8 jeans and watched French presidential candidate Francois Bayrou work a street market in an immigrant suburb of Paris, shaking hands over baskets of dried fish, stacks of flat bread and mannequins modeling head scarves.
"Salaam alaikum!" shouted a young man in a leather jacket, offering the traditional Muslim greeting "Peace be upon you."
"Salaam alaikum," replied Bayrou, the candidate from the centrist Union for French Democracy party now running third in opinion polls before the April 22 presidential election.
"I'm impressed," said Trigano, a 60-year-old resident of this suburb of high-rise apartments on the Seine River northwest of Paris. "He's bold. Not every candidate would dare to come with hardly any bodyguards. Politicians think it's dangerous here. He came to listen to what suburban people have to say. I think that's great."
Bayrou's campaign stroll through the ethnic mixing bowl of Mantes-la-Jolie represents a dramatic shift in France's stodgy, elitist political system. Sixteen months after immigrant neighborhoods exploded in the country's worst civil unrest in nearly half a century, the suburbs are emerging for the first time as a potent force in the presidential campaign.
Immigrant citizens and their first-generation French children have registered to vote in unprecedented numbers, forcing politicians to address a potential voter pool previously written off as politically insignificant.
Thousands of small, vocal political action groups representing Africans, Arabs and young people have sprung up in suburbs across the country, fledgling challengers to the political monopolies of unions and other establishment organizations.
Grass-roots blogs and Web sites are scrutinizing candidate records, becoming sassy and candid alternatives to the nation's mainstream news media.
"The suburban vote is very important," Bayrou, a three-time presidential contender, said in an interview after surprising commuters when he and his media entourage crammed onto a train for the 25-minute ride from Paris to Mantes-la-Jolie. "I'm not naturally a candidate of the suburbs, my constituency historically is rural -- but I am here."
Addressing Discrimination The suburban violence that stunned the nation and besmirched France's image across the globe not only fueled greater political activism in the immigrant neighborhoods but also has forced presidential candidates to confront issues previously considered politically taboo: racial, ethnic and religious discrimination. A recent survey commissioned by a black advocacy group, the Representative Council of Black Associations, and conducted by the TNS-Sofres polling firm, found that 61 percent of blacks polled said they are victimized by discrimination on a daily basis. France has no blacks in its legislative National Assembly other than the 10 representatives from its overseas departments that are predominantly black.
Even Jean-Marie Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right National Front party who shocked France in 2002 by receiving the second-highest number of votes in the presidential election after campaigning with messages considered racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic, is trying to soften his hard-line reputation with campaign posters and advertisements that include an attractive young black woman, in an overt appeal to all racial groups.
"Jean-Marie Le Pen can't go to the suburbs, because if two or three 12-year-olds decide to spit on him, his visit will be ruined," Marine Le Pen, the candidate's daughter and party vice president, said at a recent meeting with foreign journalists. "It's not a big deal, because they hear our message like any other French people."
In contrast to the United States, France has concentrated its immigrant and poor populations in the suburbs rather than the inner cities.
Suburban issues have dominated the presidential campaign of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, candidate of the ruling center-right Union for a Popular Movement party. Many critics blame him for inflaming the suburbs during the fall 2005 violence when he referred to some youths as "scum" that should be washed out of the neighborhoods.
He has since tried to ameliorate the anger and has appointed an Algerian-born Muslim, Abderrahmane Dahmane, to the position of "national secretary in charge of relations with associations involved in French immigration issues."
But Sarkozy is not expected to draw many votes among immigrants in the suburbs, according to most opinion polls and political analysts.
Dahmane tries to play down the importance of the populace Sarkozy has asked him to oversee: "These communities don't vote a lot; they talk a lot but they don't vote," he said.
That could change this year.
Voter registration has skyrocketed in every French demographic group and nearly every district -- urban, suburban and rural. Across the country, voter registration is up nearly 50 percent over the last presidential election in 2002, according to preliminary figures. In some localities, the number of new voters increased more than 300 percent, according to tallies by the daily newspaper Le Monde.
Analysts and political activists say the increase in voter registration was the result of two events that shocked the country: the 2005 suburban violence and Le Pen's second-place showing in the last election.
'I'm Here Out of Guilt'That is why on a recent chilly winter afternoon, Denis Laronche, a 46-year-old white accountant who lives in the northern suburb of Bondy, stood sentry outside the turnstiles of the commuter train station shoving leaflets for Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal in the hand of a young black man hunched in a black hoodie.
"I'm here out of guilt," said Laronche, who said he registered to vote for the first time in his life for this election.
"All the people who didn't vote in 2002 feel guilty," he add, stretching his arm toward an Indian woman in a gold-and-brown sari.
But many of the newly registered voters are more like Sareed Balit, a 34-year-old Algerian immigrant, who stood in a street market a few steps from the train station.
Balit, who became a French citizen three years ago, signed up to vote in December after seeing television ads featuring rapper Joey Star urging suburban young people to register. "I don't know if I'm going to vote for the left or the right," Balit said as he handed a customer in a head scarf change for a package of muffins.
"The parties did not expect all these new voters," said Mohammed Mechmache, president of AC-le feu, which translates as Enough of Fire, a neighborhood association in the nearby suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 rioting began. "They pose a real problem because no one knows who they're going to vote for. They are the ones who will make the difference in this election."
Mayor Gilbert Roger of Bondy, who is heading candidate Royal's campaign efforts in his suburb, said, "Our slogan is, 'Registration is good, but voting is better.' "
But Roger, a Socialist who said he and other Socialist mayors felt abandoned by their own party during the 2005 riots, added, "It's wrong to think people from immigrant origins will automatically vote for the left."
And many of the new political activists say they question whether candidates promising improvements in the suburbs will deliver if elected.
"It's a good thing that the candidates are going to certain neighborhoods, but they should have done this long ago," said Mechmache. "Are they going to come back after the elections? Are they just going to pass by with their big cars and not even stop?
"If they make people dream, then forget about them, I can assure you that the social turmoil we experienced in the suburbs in 2005 is going to be far worse," he said. "More people are going to be on the streets -- people of all age groups, because everyone feels concerned now."