Vive l'immigrant?

France's presidential candidates are courting newly empowered immigrant voters.

Immigration is a hot topic in the hotly contested French presidential election. The issue is integrating France's ethnic Arabs and Africans, many of them Muslims – and also legal residents. If done right, France could be a European trendsetter.

France is not a perfect parallel for Europe. Its immigrants are multi-generational, stemming from the colonial era. Many are French citizens by now; about 3.5 million are legal residents (200,000 to 400,000 are illegals). Europe also has millions of Muslims in its midst, but Germany's ethnic Turks, for instance, arrived as guest workers. Most are not citizens.

And yet the challenges are similar whether it's the Netherlands or Bri­tain: clashes over religious dress and practice, over political extremism and violence, over economic and social opportunity.

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In France, the difficulty of integration was underscored by the riots of 2005. Youths from primarily Arab and African suburbs (akin to low-income projects) rampaged in areas throughout the country.

Since then, conditions haven't changed for the suburban dwellers, many of whom are children of immigrants. They're still grossly under-represented among the French political, cultural, and business elite.

And they're disproportionately unemployed. In some suburbs, the overall jobless rate is 20 percent, and more than 40 percent for working-age youth (it's 8.4 percent for France as a whole).

But there's a potentially earth-shattering shift occurring in the suburbs. The immigrant communities are empowering themselves politically. An election that's perceived as one of generational change has upped voter registration all over France. It's soared in immigrant areas, with no one sure what the impact will be.

In a French twist, the suburbs are actually being visited by the candidates, though Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative, has made himself scarce there. As the former interior minister, his reference to angry young suburbanites as "scum" helped fuel the 2005 riots. Mr. Sarkozy recently called for the creation of a "ministry of immigration and national identity," which some see as an ominous sign of nationalism. French Holocaust survivor and former minister Simone Veil denounced the suggestion and said instead it should be a ministry of "immigration and integration."

The very name of Sarkozy's proposed ministry points to the country's immigrant tensions. The republic's motto of "liberty, equality, and fraternity (brotherhood)" seems to have worked in giving its immigrants from other parts of Europe a French identity. Sarkozy, for instance, is the son of Hungarian immigrants. But in practice, the motto has failed its non-European immigrants.

The candidates seem to think this can be repaired if France makes a greater effort at the "equality" part of their motto. Certainly equal opportunity underlies America's immigration successes.

The three main contenders – Sarkozy, Socialist Ségolène Royal, and centrist François Bayrou – promise to improve immigrant access to better quality education and jobs (there would be even more jobs if the French took market-based reforms more seriously). Sarkozy even supports "affirmative action."

But the pull of French nationalism is also very strong. More than half the public now believes immigration is not good for France. Courting votes that might otherwise go to ultranationlist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen ("France for the French"), Sarkozy is simultaneously campaigning on much tougher immigration standards. Ms. Royal is urging French citizens to learn "La Marseillaise."

The open question is whether France's immigrant community and everyone else can agree on what it means to be a French national. Immigrants are likely to see it as more than a matter of equal opportunity. In a staunchly secular society, they may wonder, for instance, where's the liberty to wear a head scarf to school? Where's the brotherhood?

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