French Election: Bretons give the 'crocodile' food for thought: An immigrant fights for his political life in Brittany

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FINISTERE - The reversal of roles was a vivid commentary on post-colonial France, but the arrival in a tiny market square of an immaculately-attired Togolese immigrant, who is the country's only black government minister, generated barely a ripple of interest among local people at the weekend.

Some of the older local women, in traditional garb, were too busy purchasing the ingredients for the Breton lunch of kig ar farz - a stew made from meat and flour - to pay any attention. For others the outcome of the elections is already a foregone conclusion.

Brittany is Catholic, overwhelmingly white and fiercely proud of its culture. Once the hub of France's slave trade to the Americas, it has been home to Kofi Yamgnane since he was 19, when he came to study engineering, married a Bretonne girl, Annemarie, and stayed.

In 1975 he became a French citizen and in 1989 was elected mayor of St Coulitz, population 350, where he instituted an African-style conseil des sages (council of elders) to meet once a week to advise the elected councillors. The practice has since spread to towns and villages throughout Europe and North America.

Mr Yamgnane was made a minister in 1981, with special responsibility for immigration policy. He made an immediate impression by coming out firmly against clandestine immigration and by telling the country's 3 million Muslims that they must observe French law against polygamy.

The day of campaigning began in the early hours in Paris, followed by a short flight to Brest. Far from the capital, the formalities soon fell away for what was to become a cross-country tour of bars and cafes. The tour lasted until well after midnight.

Mr Yamgnane began by ambling through the market in Plougastel handing out his election manifesto and signing copies of his autobiography Law, Duty and Crocodiles. The only hint of hostility he encountered came from a stallholder. He was so furious at the Socialist government that he refused to shake the minister's hand. Another politician would have walked away, but Mr Yamgnane argued the case for high social charges at a time of high unemployment. Afterwards he said how tired he was of trying to persuade people to think beyond their own profit margins.

Referred to in the local press as 'the crocodile', Mr Yamgnane, 47, had hoped to run into his political opponent, Jean-Yves Cozan, a white- bearded Breton-speaking nationalist known to all as 'Obelix'. A meeting never took place, however, although Socialist party supporters reported several sightings of the opponent during the day - prompting the minister to comment dryly that he was proving as hard to find in Finistere as he was at the National Assembly in Paris, where he showed up for only five days last year.

Despite a good reputation, Mr Yamgnane expects to be roundly beaten at the polls and is setting his sights on the European elections.

Remarkably, however, Mr Yamgnane's presence less than 10 days before a national election did not attract the attention of one local journalist or television camera crew.

He dropped in on a public works project for the long-term unemployed where 10 local men in blue overalls were clearing brush on a public right- of-way. Under a programme run by Mr Yamgnane's office, they are paid an extra pounds 300 a month on top of the dole for 20 hours work per week.

The idea, says Mr Yamgnane, is to keep the unemployed in the job market. 'Even if all they do is get up in the morning and show up for work it's something,' he said. He bought the workers a glass of wine at a nearby hole-in-the wall bar, known locally as the 'casino', which is run by Job Calvez, a native Breton-speaker.

Mr Yamgnane listened to Gilbert Lepetit, 42, an unemployed oyster worker with three children, who said his employer replaced him with a younger man, who came cheaper because of a state subsidy. From the casino, the entourage headed for another village for lunch and on to the picturesque port of Tinduff. The town meeting in a backroom at Maggie's restaurant was to come last.

'The Socialists could not have done more than they have accomplished,' he told the meeting 'and I promise you within 6 months France will be in the streets,' if as widely predicted a centre- right coalition sweeps to power after two rounds of balloting on the next two Sundays.

'The suburbs are ready to explode,' said Mr Yamgnane, 'and the temptation of the new government will be to impose a type of police state to restore order.'

Mr Yamgnane's special responsibility has been to keep the lid on the rising anti-immigrant feeling and to mitigate the tensions caused by unemployment, now running at 10 per cent with 3 million out of work and another 2 million below the breadline.

(Photograph omitted)