Arab Minorities Seek Voice in French Politics

But many feel that bias and traditional parties have excluded them

FRANCE may present a rainbow of faces and ethnic backgrounds on its cities' streets, but the National Assembly is pure beret and baguette - "French-French," as the French say.

As the French go to polls Sunday in the first round of legislative elections, a record number of candidates from the country's 3.5 million North African population are trying to change that.

Unfortunately for them, however, they are bumping up against the historic French discomfort with the idea of minority groups and an obsession with erasing differences through assimilation.

Born in France in the late 1950s and '60s, for the most part, but still often considered immigrants, these candidates believe they can add something to French politics.

"We have our two cents' worth to make heard and our experience to share," says Moustapha Ghouila, candidate from the heavily immigrant suburbs north of Lyon. "We know the terrain and we live every day the problems of housing, unemployment, insecurity, and education," adds the son of Algerian immigrants. "Too often, the politicians we have are disconnected from that reality."

Mr. Ghouila is one of 23 candidates associated with France Plus, a national civil rights and pro-integration organization. Along with a half dozen other Arab-background candidates, mostly running under France's two ecology parties, they make up the tiny (out of 5,169 candidates for 577 seats) but nevertheless significant group of political neophytes trying to break the Assembly's "French-French" makeup.

Try as they might, however, no one - not even the candidates themselves - gives even the better known members of the group the least chance of electoral triumph.

"What's most important to us right now is building awareness of the political system, especially among young voters," says Mokrane Kessi, another France Plus candidate from a Lyon suburb. "It may be 10 or 15 years before we actually elect a mayor or member of the Assembly."

Explanations abound for why the next French Assembly is unlikely to include a beur - what the French call French-born Arabs. Most of their candidates are inexperienced and in their 20s or low 30s and their political aspirations are hampered by widespread indifference in their natural constituencies.

More significantly, France's traditional parties have been slow to promote the Arabs and other minorities in their ranks to Assembly candidacies. Several of this year's Arab parliamentary candidates are former Socialist Party activists, for example, who tired of never getting their turn.

France counts about 150 Arab-background elected officials, mostly at the municipal level. But penetration of the halls of power stops where the proportional electoral system for municipal races, complete with multi-candidate lists, ends, and the majority system of single candidates, as for the Assembly, begins.

But perhaps the most important reason is France's deeply rooted hostility toward concepts of ethnicity and multiculturalism, and its historic rejection of any form of official recognition of minorities. Especially with Europe facing mounting ethnic tensions, expression of cultural and racial differences are increasingly attacked as threats to the traditional French republican principles of unity and assimilation.

Sociologist Benjamin Stora, director of the Maghreb-Europe Institute in Paris, says that while the major French parties can be legitimately challenged on their failure to promote candidates who are minorities, organizations like France Plus that focus on minority candidates are affronts to the "singular French rejection of the [ethnic] community model."

The problem for candidates like Ghouila and Mr. Kessi is that, no matter how much they pledge their allegiance to French republican ideals, their candidacies stand as chafing reminders that classic French assimilation is working less well with non-European, often Muslim populations.

In effect, the Arab (and other minority) political hopefuls are caught in a trap. On the one hand their minority status is an unavoidable factor, hampering their progress within traditional political parties and yet emerging as one of their principal motivations. "We are tired of being invisible," Ghouila says.

At the same time they must refuse any recourse to an "ethnic" vote, as the France Plus candidates do. "I am a candidate of ideas, not of skin color and cultural background," says Nourredine Henni, a Dunkirk city councilor running with France Plus for the Assembly.

Nonetheless, Djida Tazdait, a member of the European Parliament from Lyon, predicts Arab-background candidates running on an ethnic platform will emerge in 1995 municipal elections.

"Even among the so-called [French] progressives there is a fear of difference and color, so after a decade of activism we are still on the outside," says Ms. Tazdait. "Our only alternative may be to organize ethnic lists next time," she adds, "not because we're for a political ghetto, but because we are for ending our invisibility and the cultural resistance we meet at every turn."

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