Election campaign passes France's poorest city by

Rory Mulholland
A French member of the French National Police Intervention Group (GIPN) is seen in front of a house in Roubaix, northern France, on April 4. A once wealthy city fallen on hard times, Roubaix today has the distinction of being France's poorest town and a place where only one in four people bothers turning out to vote

A once wealthy city fallen on hard times, Roubaix today has the distinction of being France's poorest town and a place where only one in four people bothers turning out to vote.

As well as being the capital of abstention, it is one of the most diverse communities in France, with a huge immigrant population -- many of them North African Muslims -- accounting for around half of local people.

For the current presidential election, whose first round takes place Sunday, city authorities, local elected officials and activist groups have teamed up to try and shake the locals out of their democratic lethargy.

"I think therefore I vote," is the slogan on badges distributed by a local residents' group in the district of Hommelet, whose two polling stations had the city's worst abstention rates in the previous 2007 poll.

"The politicians tell us that the people don't vote because they're poor," said Bruno Lestienne, whose group attempts to mobilise voters.

"But when we go out to the people we tell them the poor are the ones who should vote because they need the most from politicians."

Hommelet symbolises the decline of a city whose former prosperity left textile mills, Art Nouveau architecture and an extravagant town hall built by the same architect who designed what is now the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

An area of red-brick terraced houses, the district was for decades home to the Phildar textile factory that employed 7,000 people. It has been shut down and its site now houses a public park.

The firm followed a trend that began in the 1970s and saw factories shift production abroad, leaving Roubaix to sink into a decline that is today reflected in a 30 percent unemployment rate, three times the national average.

"Roubaix is a very paradoxical place," said Slimane Tir, a local official who will stand on a Green ticket in June's legislative elections.

In a city of 95,000 people, there are around 45,000 jobs, but only a quarter of them are held by people from the town itself.

The rest go to workers from the agglomeration that includes Roubaix and its sister cities Lille and Tourcoing, he explained.

One major reason is that after the textile industry declined, workers in that sector -- many of whom were immigrants -- failed to retrain and ended up as long-term unemployed.

State-funded urban renewal programmes did help the town, bringing in firms and professionals who bought lofts in disused warehouses and factories, but critics say they did little for most locals.

Roubaix had for decades attracted workers from abroad -- Italians, Polish, Portuguese, north Africans, Southeast Asians -- and today counts the biggest number of nationalities in France in any city outside Paris.

Some estimates put at around 50 percent the number of locals of foreign descent, with the bulk of them of Arab origin.

"The city has been ghettoised and the city maintains this system of vulnerability and the nanny state," complained Salima Saa, a local official who is on President Nicolas Sarkozy's re-election campaign team.

Saa, who will stand for the right-wing UMP party in the legislative elections in June, said that those locals who do work are mostly either employed by the city itself or by not-for-profit associations.

And she alleged that the high abstention rate suits the city's largely Socialist political establishment.

Saa goes door to door and canvasses in markets and other public places to get people to turn out for the presidential vote, in which the opinion polls say Sarkozy will lose to his Socialist rival Francois Hollande.

She suggested Roubaix's low turnout -- it was under 30 percent for the first round of the 2007 presidential vote -- was because locals believe that most of whatever help they get comes from the city and not from the state.

The Socialist city mayor, Pierre Dubois, rejected the idea that being poor meant people were less likely to vote.

The issue in Roubaix, he said, is that there was an exceptionally high number of people arriving or leaving the city and that bureaucratic hurdles or delays meant that many did not register on time.

"We have put in place an action plan to fight abstention which includes a series of measures such as helping people register, awareness-raising events and communication," he said.

Most people AFP questioned in a straw poll on the streets of Roubaix said they planned to vote on April 22, but some said they saw no point.

"I don't dream any more. Nothing really changes here despite what they promise during their campaigns. I just don't see any future in Roubaix," said a middle-aged man who declined to give his name.

Another possible cause of the high abstention rate is that presidential candidates tend to overlook Roubaix during their campaigns.

This time round, most of the 10 contenders have held rallies in nearby Lille, but only one -- the Greens' Eva Joly -- has ventured the few kilometres closer to the Belgian border to see its sister city of Roubaix.