Two cities, and France's stark choice of direction
Sunday, the nation will choose either Ségolène Royal or Nicolas Sarkozy to be its new president.
NEUILLY-sur-Seine AND ARGENTEUIL, FRANCE
It's a tale of two cities. On the eve of Sunday's presidential elections, it might be called a tale of two Frances.Skip to next paragraph
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Neuilly-sur-Seine is a wealthy town in northeast Paris that is solidly for conservative front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy. Nearby is the poor, largely immigrant suburb of Argenteuil, where Socialist Ségolène Royal is likely to win decisively.
The two are connected by a miles-long tunnel. But the metaphorical distance between them is far greater.
In Neuilly, residents say the election is mainly about changing the larded social-welfare system that allows new immigrants in France to get away with not working. People in Argenteuil say it is about an inability to find a real job in a France that is ever more costly to live in.
Divides in the two cities reflect deeper concerns and fears over expectations, identity, and security in a country where "What is France?" is the main question inthis election. It brings two profound political strains to a head, says French historian Theodore Zeldin – "two different ideas about what politics is about. [Ms.] Royal sees it as about empathy, relationships, compassion. [Mr.] Sarkozy represents authority, competition, and hard work."
In a combative debate with Ms. Royal Wednesday, Sarkozy argued that France's main problem is "a moral crisis of work.... I don't believe in a welfare state, but in merit. Above all I believe in work."
Sarkozy cut his political teeth – schools chief at age 22, mayor by 28 – in Neuilly, a Scarsdale, Bel Air, or Chevy Chase of France. The manicured public spaces and posh open markets, like the Marché des Sablons, give it a solid feel of success. Some 47 percent of working residents are professionals. The average salary is $8,000 a month. Popular French actor Gerard Depardieu lives here. So does Liliane Bettencourt, owner of L'Oreal and the richest woman in France. Neuilly has no homeless persons registered. (It pays a $1 million annual fine rather than comply with diversification rules.) In Round 1 of the election, Neuilly voted for "Sarko" at 72.3 percent.
"My whole family is for Sarkozy," says Beatrice, a housewife with frosted hair who is at the market to buy some of the season's last Coquilles Saint Jacques, a scallop-like delicacy. "I know him. He quickly sizes up situations. He is a man with energy who can change France at a time it needs to be changed, because he is strong."
Argenteuil, known for asparagus and white figs, used to be a communist bastion – part of the "red belt" of revolutionary suburbs that ringed Paris. Karl Marx lived here for a time. So did painter Claude Monet. Today the city is a working-class bedroom community for Paris. It has 104,000 residents, many of whom are Arab and African immigrants, and a host of housing projects. It was a flash point in 2005 rioting.
A France unfamiliar to many
"Argenteuil is like the Bronx," says a cafe owner. "Some neighborhoods are for Sarkozy, some are for Royal."
A section called Val Nord is the heart of the immigrant population. Women don Muslim head coverings, males wear soccer shirts sporting the name "Zidane," the Algerian superstar ousted from the World Cup finals for head-butting an opponent. It's easy to find a boucherie halal with meats prepared according to Islamic codes. When traditional middle-class French complain that they are less able to recognize their country, Val Nord is what they mean.
Val Nord is also the site of the Dalle – a vast cement plaza, a meeting place ringed with budget stores, and a high-rise housing project studded with satellites dishes for Arabic TV.