"There is no contradiction in being Arab or black or any other minority and voting Le Pen," argues Smahi, who joined the party a decade ago after having initially backed leftist causes and marching for immigrant rights. "French minorities and banlieue [housing project] residents see they've been manipulated and exploited by both the hypocritical left and sham right for years now. Nothing has changed except the racism. So this time around, expect a lot of people to be casting votes for Le Pen in the hopes that, at last, things may change."
In the wave of activism that followed the rioting that shook France late in 2005, banlieue residents have been registering en masse to vote in this year's presidential and legislative elections. And the results of those elections could be heavily influenced by millions of ethnic-minority first-time voters. But it's far from certain how they plan to vote. Some experts feel they'll back the left on promises of programs of suburban renewal, but others suspect they will confound conventional wisdom by backing the politician who mirrors their own outsider status in the French political mainstream: Le Pen.
"I don't think anyone should be surprised to see a large portion of France's banlieue vote going to Le Pen," says a woman giving her name only as Habiba. Many of the younger, newly registered voters in the housing projects around her Toulouse home have told her they'll do just that. Though most people in France view Le Pen as the very embodiment of overt racism, both Habiba and Smahi say minority voters will overlook his reputation in order to keep out the politician most hated by banlieue youths: Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, whose heavy-handed approach and provocative language they see as having fueled the violence in 2005.
"You hear lots of younger people saying they'll vote for Le Pen to deny Sarkozy the presidency or vote for Le Pen just to throw France's establishment into turmoil," Smahi says, noting the party will gladly accept all ballots, regardless of motive.
Smahi, a member of the National Front's political bureau, believes it has a program that can attract minority voters: "What initially appealed to me was hearing the National Front message that if I accepted the responsibilities of citizenship, I'd have the right of national preference in return," notes Smahi, 46. "That means we halt immigration until we can provide for people already here, and reserve the wealth and jobs of the nation first for citizens. That message means a lot in projects where unemployment is nearly 50%, and many French residents can't get work."
Le Pen's party also hopes to capitalize on the feelings of betrayal in the banlieue: "We've been waiting for someone to say 'If you're French first and foremost, you're welcome and have a place among us'," says Habiba, contrasting that message with mainstream politicians who she accuses of "telling us we're French, but continue shutting us out as eternal foreigners."
So how does Habiba deal with National Front policies demanding a halt to the same immigration that brought her parents here. "Until we have the means to offer every citizen a good life, we can't continue allowing foreigners in, where they, too, will live sub-standard lives," she explains. "Is it more humane to let them keep coming to live disadvantaged lives in segregated ghettoes, where they'll feel the hostility against immigrants every day? Or is it is better to tell them they're better off at home?" The answer may depend on which side of the immigration divide one falls. And it's a divide Le Pen is more than happy to work