A PUNGENT smell of tear-gas seeped from the man's clothes. Offered a glass of boukha, Tunisian plum brandy, he said he had chased a girl who stole two pairs of jeans from his shop and was then sprayed with tear-gas by an accomplice.
The account by the shopkeeper, one of the community of Jewish pieds noirs, North African settlers who came to France 30 years ago as Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia gained their independence, preceded a Saturday evening that Pierre Lellouche, the Gaullist RPR candidate in the eighth constituency of the Val d'Oise department, was about to spend at a number of different ethnic groups' parties.
It gave weight to talk of great insecurity in the suburbs, a short train-ride from the opulent centre of Paris. The constituency where Mr Lellouche, the international affairs adviser to the Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac, is standing includes part of the town of Sarcelles, a byword for a seedy concrete slum area. It was, said Mr Lellouche, 'the prototype of urban disaster', built 'to house people, not for living'.
One of the most influential communities in the area are the pieds noirs, who account for about 7 per cent of the electorate. To capture their votes, the Socialist Party fielded Dominique Strauss- Kahn, a Jew and the Industry Minister, as its candidate at the last elections to the National Assembly in 1988. He won with a handsome 61 per cent in the second round.
With the centre-right coalition of Gaullists and the Union for French Democracy expecting a landslide in the parliamentary elections on 21 and 28 March, the RPR chose Mr Lellouche, born into a Jewish family in Tunisia 41 years ago, to chip away at Mr Strauss-Kahn's advantage. The result is likely to be close.
Perhaps a measure of Mr Lellouche's progress was provided by a visit to a Cambodian dance, where he found Mr Strauss-Kahn and his wife at one of the tables. The two candidates did not acknowledge each other but Mr Strauss-Kahn, angered by the presence of a photographer, demanded that the photographer send him the negatives. He refused and the minister asked for his name and place of work.
Later, Mr Strauss-Kahn admitted he had gone too far. His wife, Anne Sinclair, one of France's most prominent television journalists, said the evening, to which the public had access by ticket, was a private affair.
Mr Lellouche, a Harvard-educated expert on disarmament and one of the founders of the French International Relations Institute, who has been a columnist for Newsweek and other foreign media, confessed that French domestic affairs shocked him.
Touring the constituency, past modern commercial centres - where many shops were bricked up - and down deserted streets, he said he had found a population, 35 per cent of them immigrants, suffering from 'a permanent malaise' who were 'completely disenchanted, completely demoralised. They feel they are abandoned, that they have no hope'.
In some parts, the number of unemployed and workers on the 'minimum insertion wage', a temporary breadline payment to keep unemployment down, was as high as 40 per cent, four times the national average. Reported crime had risen by 63 per cent in the past six months. Some families had begun to live entirely off the proceeds of drugs sales.
A report prepared by experts on US urban problems, who visited French suburbs under the auspices of the Franco-American Foundation last December, warned that 'if French society does not integrate ethnic communities into the economy better, it will know the same urban security problems as the US'.
The insecurity made the area fertile for the far right anti-immigration National Front, which has otherwise lost ground in recent months, Mr Lellouche said. It could expect a vote of 20 per cent, compared with an expected national average of 11 per cent, in the first round on 21 March, he added. The constituency, he said, had people of 130 nationalities and 83 ethnic groups. 'You can go from India to the Caribbean, to Vietnam and to Tunis in one evening,' he said. 'Normally, I would love it.'
That night, he started with the pieds noirs before the Cambodian party and a Caribbean masked ball. At the end of the evening he returned to hear the Arab band at the pied noir party while a Jewish singer sang from the repertoire of Um Kalthum, the late Egyptian singer, who, he said, used 'to rock me to sleep in my childhood'.
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