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Sharply divided worlds meet at Paris's Gare du Nord

The train station that symbolizes ethnic France was the scene of a riot last month.

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They all hold cellphones – which police say were used to quickly summon the mob of some 300, in the March 28 incident.

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Guy, in jeans and a blue-velvet jacket, is a Baptist who wants to do community work in the banlieue. He says he was "expecting something like [the riot] because the station is where everyone comes."

Pointing finger at immigrant kids

He's a mix of patience and exasperation, saying that relations between the police and populations in the banlieue have deteriorated. Most rioters were children of French immigrants, not immigrants, he says, "which is sad given the bad name [immigrants] get in the elections."

"In the colonies, we are all raised to be French, we feel French, but when we come to France, we aren't treated as French…. The kids who broke things were born here. They are French kids who are jobless. People like me, we aren't thinking like that. We just want to work. We don't get in trouble because we know we'll be deported."

Every black interviewed supported Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal. "She's like the other politicians, but she's less racist," says Joseph, from Ghana, who is on his way to London, where he works as a security guard. He can't find a job in France, he says, with a roll of the eyes.

Mr. Sarkozy, who started a deportations policy, couldn't visit a Lyon suburb last week because of protests.

For France, the question of how to impart French identity in populations that live largely separate lives is a profound one. Those who see the problem as urgent, conservatives like Sarkozy and Jean Le Pen, advocate tough approaches that have angered minorities. Socialist and liberal candidates are seen as defining the issue less urgently and as short on ways to address it.

Sarkozy says that unassimilated youths tend not to care about France, don't learn the language, and freeload off its social system; he advocates a serious change in the social contract.

"For years, we have let them [minorities] do whatever they want," he said after Gare du Nord. "We are the only country in the world where people think it's not right to arrest someone who has not paid for his ticket. If the police are not there to ensure a minimum of order, what exactly is their role?"

Conservatives point to lax immigration policies that don't lay out acceptable behavior. Sarkozy, in a new book, spells out a new concept of personal responsibility, one he says will protect not only mainstream French, but also ordinary immigrants. Some observers say a focus on individual behavior is more realistic, innovative, and far-reaching than anything proposed by Sarkozy's competitors.

For Ms. Royal and for François Bayrou, the "third man" in the race, who is also liked in the banlieue, the Gare du Nord riot is the bitter fruit of a policy that has put police and ethnic populations at loggerheads. They say that without establishing trust among immigrants, and a real stake for them, divisions will worsen. "We've got to this situation because for a long time the police have been used exclusively as a force for repression – ever since the arrival of Nicolas Sarkozy at the Interior ministry," said Mr. Bayrou.

Royal said: "After five years of a right-wing government, which made law and order its campaign theme, we can see the failure. People are pitted against each other; they are afraid of each other."

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